Six months later: Union says employees at N.B. entry points face burnout

Six months after the province enacted border controls to slow the spread of COVID-19, the union representing most Department of Public Safety employees says it’s time to send in reinforcements.

In March, provincial employees were reassigned to screen people wanting to enter the province at one of 11 points of entry, including three airports and the ferry terminal in Saint John.

Susie Proulx-Daigle, president of the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, said about 100 of her members have been affected, and pulling double duty is taking its toll.

“There’s so much burnout,” she said.

Union president Susie Proulx-Daigle said about 100 of her members have been trying to do two jobs at once and its taking a toll. (CBC)

“People are out on leave, people are sick,” she added, which only exasperates the problem.

Forest rangers, conservation officers, commercial vehicle enforcement officers, off road vehicle enforcement officers, national safety code investigators, general investigative service members, corrections officers,  sheriffs, public health inspectors and administrative staff have been recruited to work at the border.   

Proulx-Daigle said that when the province declared a state of emergency, the union was flexible.

Employees from correctional services, sheriff services and provincial enforcement programs like conservation, highway safety, and off-road safety have been reassigned to screen people at the province’s points of entry. (CBC/Alexandre Silberman)

“The government asked us to sign on to a mobility agreement, where they can reassign people to different duties as needed,” which the union did.

“And they’ve been going full out since March, since this all started.”

The borders are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with shifts starting at  7 a.m. and 7 p.m. lasting 12 hours.

Proulx-Daigle said most of her members work at the border four days in a row, then have four days off, but that’s not where the work ends.

“During the four off, they need to put in some [time] to try and and at least touch the surface of what’s going on in their regular job,” she said.

The province has set up checkpoints at 11 points of entry, including airports and the ferry terminal in Saint John. (CBC)

She said she’s heard that some union members have been denied vacation time this summer because of short staffing, and others were only able to take a maximum of one week.

“Usually during the summer, that’s when they get they get a chance to kind of R and R,” she said.

“But they haven’t had that this year.”

Relief could be on the way in the form of new hires.

The province released the COVID-19 Fall Pandemic Response and Preparedness Plan 2020 mid-August.

It states that border screenings will most likely last “well into 2021” when New Brunswick’s, “population and health-care system [are]no longer under significant threat from COVID-19.”

A long line of traffic, on the left, heads toward a checkpoint to enter New Brunswick on July 8. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

The document also concedes that there were, “stressors becoming evident,” to the border-control staffing plan, making it necessary to recruit more people. 

Coreen Enos, a communications officer with the Department of Public Safety, wrote in an email that 43 new armed peace officers have been hired and trained.

The pandemic response plan said the goal was to have Public Safety running at, “50 per cent of its traditional capacity for enforcement of provincial legislation,” with all the hiring and training completed “by September.”

No one from the department was made available to say if the goal was reached, or if more recruiting is being done. 

Proulx-Daigle said the new recruits are a positive step, and she hopes there are more on the way to relieve overworked employees.

Compliance officers check vehicles at the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border near Amherst. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“They’re very committed to their job,” she said.

But before the pandemic, these employees were doing important work in many areas, such as food inspection, road safety, and enforcing wildlife legislation.

“It’s important they get back to where they they need to be, which is the job they were hired to do,” said Proulx-Daigle.

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