'They're forgetting about us': Pearson Airport workers concerned about getting COVID-19

It's one of Canada's largest gateways but workers at Toronto's Pearson airport claim not enough is being done to protect them from COVID-19.

Union wants ‘strict measures’ to protect employees after death of duty free worker

Teamsters Local Union 419 is calling for strict measures to protect the health and safety of all the workers at Toronto's Pearson airport after an employee died of COVID-19 last week. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

It's one of Canada's largest gateways but workers at Toronto's Pearson airport claim not enough is being done to protect them from COVID-19.

Beata Betlej said she lost her friend of 19 years and fellow airport worker Monika Filipek to the deadly respiratory illness. But she said while there appears to be a lot of focus on people who work at hospitals and grocery stores, that's not the case for many categories of airport workers.

"It hurts us a little bit that nobody's talking about us ... We're risking our lives to come to work," Betlej told CBC News.

"They're asking everybody to stay home but they're forgetting about us."

Betlej said Filipek, 43, died last week after contracting the novel coronavirus.

'Everybody's scared'

Betlej said she and Filipek met while they were both working at the airport duty free shops. She believes her friend got infected with COVID-19 while on the job, noting that while workers try their best to control traffic into the duty free stores, it's sometimes hard to do.

"Right now, we're more scared because it actually happened to someone you know ... You can see it's really serious and coming to work and [leaving] from work, you're scared," Betlej said.

"Everybody's scared. Everybody's asking why we're still open, if there's really [a] need for us to be open."

Monika Filipek, 43, who worked at duty free shops in Toronto's Pearson International Airport, died last week from complications related to COVID-19. (Submitted by Beata Betlej)

There are approximately 400 employers at Pearson Airport, and they employ thousands of workers. 

The union representing baggage handlers, check-in agents and cabin cleaners, says the lines are blurred when it comes to who is responsible for ensuring the workers are protected, provided with the necessary protective equipment, and are able to keep a safe distance from other workers as well as travellers and customers.

"I think right now the biggest issue we have is the oversight by the government of Canada … Not knowing who is our first point of contact when we have an important question to ask when it comes to the health and safety of all the airport workers," said Antonio Modarelli, health and safety officer with Teamsters Local Union 419.

"Being on Crown land we are federally regulated under the Canada Labour Code and the only presence of the Public Health Agency of Canada is just them at the arrivals and customs hall handing out a piece of paper." 

The union is calling for immediate action in three areas:

  • Passengers at check-in should line up outside if there is a crowd at the counters.

  • Installation of plexiglass barriers at check-in counters.

  • Airport authorities should tell unions whenever there is a case of COVID-19.

"We just need to have strict measures in place to protect the health and safety of all the workers. That's all we're asking for," Modarelli said.

Airport operations significantly reduced

Modarelli said while operations at the airport have been significantly reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, international flights — mostly to and from Asia — are still landing at Pearson.

Video taken this week also shows people standing close together inside one of the airport terminals.

Pearson workers say they don't feel safe on the job

2 years ago
Duration 2:08
Video taken early this week shows people still standing close together at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

'An unprecedented situation'

Tori Gass, a spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said they've been working closely with airport employers and union representatives through regular meetings.

"This is an unprecedented situation," Gass wrote in an email to CBC News.

A series of social distancing policies on aircraft have been implemented in the wake of the pandemic, including the mandatory wearing of masks. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"We've taken steps to provide physical distancing at check-in counters, such as placing stanchions at the front of the check-in counters and markers on the floor to show where passengers should stand." 

Gass added that check-ins are being staggered when possible to prevent multiple airlines checking in flights at the same time, allowing for appropriate spacing. 

"In addition, we're opening more counters for each flight to assist with check in. In the interest of continuous improvements, we're discussing many other measures, including the potential prototyping of plexiglass barriers," Gass said.

 She added that the following steps have been taken in other areas of the airport to improve passenger and employee safety: 

  • Signage, in-terminal announcements and floor markers have been installed to remind passengers to maintain physical distancing.

  • Extra hand sanitizer stations have been installed and more frequent cleaning of arrivals areas, including kiosks and bathrooms, has been implemented. High traffic areas are regularly disinfected.

  • Signage advising passengers and employees of new face covering requirements have been recently installed.

Gass said as this situation continues to evolve, new measures may be introduced as required. 

CBC News has reached out to Dufry — the duty free store where Filipek was employed — as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada, which has oversight over duty free stores, but so far neither has responded to our request at the time of publication.

With files from Lisa Xing, Shanifa Nasser and Derick Deonarain


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