Airline cuts mean longer, more expensive commute for rotational workers

From CBC News – link to source story

N.L.’s rotational workers face added stress and costs as Air Canada service cuts take effect

Conor McCann · CBC News · Posted: Feb 07, 2021

Shawn Hancock says changes to flights and public health restrictions as a result of the pandemic mean he isn’t able to see his granddaughter. (Submitted by Shawn Hancock)

With Air Canada’s cuts in service to Newfoundland and Labrador taking effect last week, the province’s rotational workers are facing longer commutes, less time with family, and more money coming out of their pocket.

Shawn Hancock has done rotational work since 2007, traveling back and forth from Alberta to his home in Bishop’s Falls.

Even before the new route changes — which included cancelling service to Gander and Goose Bay, as well as axing the long-standing Toronto-to-St. John’s run — pandemic-related restrictions were already causing significant delays, said Hancock, with some supposedly 12-hour commutes taking up to 36 hours.

“Lots of times they overbook a plane and delay us enough so we miss the next flight,” said Hancock. “So this has been going on ever since the pandemic, that lots of times you’re going to be two days getting to work.”

Because of the delays, Hancock said companies in Alberta are now more inclined to hire residents of that province.

“It’s to a point now that most companies in Alberta want to hire locals, due to we’re not dependable anymore,” Hancock said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get there that day for a shift, or it might be two days later.”

Longer commutes and less time home

Among the added expenses of the new route changes is the amount of driving that rotational workers need to do if they live outside areas where service is available.

Hancock previously took the bus to St. John’s and then taxied to the airport. Now, he said, he tries to fly out of Deer Lake.

“The flight leaves five o’clock in the morning, so you got to drive all night,” he said. “Either that, or you’ve got to go over and stay in a hotel.”

Hotel stays add to the cost of travel, and driving at night presents a number of challenges. Between the possibility of moose on the roads and the occasional snowstorm, Hancock said that the drive can be perilous.

“You’re always taking a chance when you’re leaving to go to Deer Lake or St. John’s.”

For rotational workers like Hancock, the added costs and hassle have many looking for work within Newfoundland and Labrador. What he’s finding, however, is that for those who’ve spent time working out west, the opportunities just aren’t there.

“I find that people are looking for jobs on the island, but you send in your resumé with Alberta references on it or whatnot, they don’t really look at you,” he said.

But while Albertan companies look to hire more locals, Hancock says Newfoundland employers are unsure if they can rely on their workforce to stay after restrictions begin to ease up.

“They figure that they might not stay, so why invest in them,” said Hancock. “And we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. I still got a mortgage to pay.”

Added burden of stress and isolation

For rotational workers, it’s not just the financial burdens or the loss of time, but also the emotional strain.

Between the two days of added travel time on either end, as well as the mandatory minimum eight days of isolation when returning home to the island, said Hancock, that doesn’t leave much time for workers to be with their families.

“You’ve got time home, but you’re not allowed to do anything. You can’t see your grandkids or kids or nothing.”

Many worksites in Alberta are also considered high-risk for COVID-19 transmission, and extra precautions are taken to keep workers distanced. Hancock said that often results in feeling just as isolated at work as it does when quarantining at home.

A spokesperson for Air Canada says the company regrets the effects cutting routes has on passengers but felt it was necessary to change its schedule due to decreased demand. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In a statement, Pascale Déry, Air Canada’s director of media relations for Quebec, Eastern Canada and Europe, said the company continues to experience stifled demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the recent travel restrictions, we have seen an immediate impact to our close-in bookings and have made the difficult but necessary decision to further adjust our schedule and rationalize our trans-border, Caribbean and domestic routes to better reflect expected demand and to reduce cash burn,” said the statement.

Déry said the company is carrying less than 10 per cent of passengers compared to 2019, and circumstances of the pandemic make it difficult to operate normally.

“We regret the impact these difficult decisions have on our customers and affected communities.”

While the statement says it’s premature to talk about future plans, Déry said the company continues to evaluate and adjust its routes as necessary in response to the pandemic and travel restrictions. 

One thing that can be done to alleviate some of the added pressures workers face, Hancock said, is increasing the on-and-off duration, so workers have more time with family following their self-isolation. Another, he said, would be to shorten required isolation time from eight days to five. 

“There are lots of nights I don’t sleep, just thinking about, you know, what’s the best thing to do,” said Hancock, “because to a point, I’ve got to keep working regardless.”