Summer bonus program prompting airport screening staff to work while sick, unions say

A union representing airport screening officers in Alberta says some of its members have shown up to work feeling sick in order to access a summer attendance bonus program now being studied by a House of Commons committee.

Incentive offers $200 a week for screening officers who work scheduled shifts

Screening officers contracted to work for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) have been offered bonuses this summer for every week in which they work all their scheduled shifts in full. (The Canadian Press)

A union representing airport screening officers in Alberta says some of its members have shown up to work feeling sick in order to access a summer attendance bonus program being studied by a House of Commons committee.

"It's a reward to circumvent doing what's right," said Richard Brown, president of Teamsters Canada Local Union 362.

"I've personally spoken to people that feel they're ill and they should not go to work or not stay, and they've chosen to show up and stay just to make sure they qualify."

Earlier this year — as air traffic surged after taking a nosedive during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic — screening officers contracted by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) were told of the bonus program. 

According to a memo sent out by one company, screening officers would receive $200 for every week in which they worked their scheduled shifts in full. The program was set to run for 12 weeks from June 5 to this Saturday.

With additional $500 incentives thrown in, workers were told they could earn bonuses as large as $3,900.

A less "lucrative" version of the program was offered last Christmas, according to the memo.

Brown said the program has forced workers to weigh their health against their wallets. 

"It's created an atmosphere, especially right now with inflation ... and people struggling," he said. "This is a way to make extra money, so people have cancelled their vacation and they're coming in sick."

Brown said the incentive is especially frustrating because the union has been negotiating a new contract with GardaWorld since January and has been calling for increased wages.

"It's extra income that should have been applied directly to wages, rather than as a bonus to show up when you're not quite right," he said.

Brown said the incentive is masking other problems with the screening system, such as a shortage of job applicants, poor staff retention and bad working conditions.

Union official Richard Brown says the money used for the incentive program should have gone directly to workers' wages. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

In an emailed statement on Wednesday, CATSA said the program was developed with its screening contractors and uses a limited amount of funds that were not used otherwise in April and May. 

Data on spending is not available, it said, because CATSA has not yet reviewed its contractors' invoices.

"We have no indication at this time that screening officers are not taking scheduled vacations or sick leave, when needed," the agency said. 

Dave Flowers is president of District 140 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents thousands of screening officers in Ontario and B.C. He said the bonus program has also convinced some of his members to go to work sick. 

"Our hope is that this doesn't result in outbreaks of sickness or mistakes being made in an industry where mistakes cannot be made at the flying public's expense," Flowers said via email.

'There's $200 on the line' 

A CATSA official came to the bonus program's defence when questioned last week by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, the party's transport critic. 

Bachrach and other members of the House of Commons' standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities met to discuss the controversial ArriveCAN screening app and the staffing issues and flight delays at airports over the summer.

Late into the meeting, Bachrach turned to CATSA's incentive program. The committee heard that CATSA, a publicly-funded Crown corporation, allows contractors to bill CATSA for the costs of the program.

"Can you not see how this puts workers in a very difficult situation? Because essentially, you wake up with a sore throat and you're making that decision about whether to go into work and there's $200 on the line. Is this not an incentive to go to work sick?" Bachrach asked Neil Parry, a vice president with CATSA.

Parry said that while workers who feel sick and stay home can't take part in the incentive program for that week, they are eligible for subsequent weeks in which they meet the terms of the program and remain entitled to all their base compensation, including paid sick leave. 

"We don't see it as an incentive to go to work sick," he said. "It is supernumerary to that compensation, so they're not out of pocket in any capacity.

"The incentive program is an additional bonus structure that they can avail themselves of when it's the best opportunity for them." 

WATCH / CATSA official defends bonus program amid criticism

CATSA official defends bonus program from criticism

5 months ago
Duration 1:36
NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, the party's transport critic, questions Neil Parry, the vice-president of operations for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), about a bonus program for contracted screening officers during a parliamentary committee meeting on Aug. 19, 2022.

Parry added that CATSA trusts workers to "act professionally" if they're not feeling well.

"They've demonstrated that for over two years during the pandemic, that they would stay home, be responsible," Parry said. "When they have planned vacation, we encourage them to take it because ... it is an extremely busy environment and they have done a noble job under these under these pressures."

The program has been effective, Parry added.

"Our absenteeism throughout the country has been down over the summer," he said. 


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.


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