According to the survey, just three per cent of Vancouver International Airport employees rated morale as “positive” and even the Canada Border Services Agency admits in an internal report that this has since become a “running joke.
“Members at (Vancouver International Airport) formed a ‘VIA three per cent movement’ to mock the survey results,” added Customs and Immigration Union local president Dan Robinson who describes the busy British Columbia airport as “one of the unhappiest places on Earth.”
But dissatisfaction among border officers, he and others argue, doesn’t end in B.C. They say it extends right across the country, in large part due to budget cuts and belt-tightening as the government seeks to slay the deficit.
“I would characterize almost the entire membership-employer relationship at CBSA as poor,” Robinson said. “Many members supported the Conservative Party believing their ‘law and order’ agenda would be good for business so to speak, only to find themselves and their coworkers targeted for massive cuts. This has accelerated already poor morale.”
Saskatchewan union president Brea Lewis agrees morale is a “systemic” problem. A third of staff in her province have sought transfers to other parts of the country because they can’t get full-time hours, despite the fact that Saskatoon International Airport alone has seen a 30 per cent increase in traffic. Meanwhile, the airport saw a 30 per cent decrease in staffing, she said, adding many are still “sitting in limbo” waiting for the next axe to fall.
About 1,351 CBSA officers learned their job would be affected following cuts in last year’s budget, though the government has said it would result in just 250 actual layoffs, none of which would include front-line officers. The union, however, disagrees noting it includes about 150 intelligence officers and 19 detector dog teams. Spending figures for 2013-14 released following last month’s budget show about $141-million in cuts to the department.
While the level of disgruntlement among border officials — many of whom now carry firearms — raises questions about customer service and security, Robinson insists poor morale has not resulted in a spike in public complaints and that “members are professional enough to not take out any issues they have with the employer on travellers.”
Conducted last year after airport staff gave the CBSA a failing grade on an employee survey administered across the public service, the Vancouver airport questionnaire shows 58 per cent of staff said they don’t have the necessarily tools or training to do their job effectively, while nearly three-quarters said the hiring process was unfair.
They raised serious concerns about workload, staff turnover and communication with management and while most liked their job and felt they were making a “meaningful contribution,” just a third said they’d recommend the airport as a “great place to work” to family and friends.
As a followup to the survey, the region’s acting director met with employees last fall and appointed a new operational chief. A report obtained by Postmedia News suggests sessions were held to discuss some of the concerns which included shift schedules that change daily making it difficult to balance family life and a parking situation that requires border officers park two kilometres away and travel to work by SkyTrain.
They complained of “favouritism” and argued “officers were often spread too thin,” making it difficult to patrol effectively. They also said their workspace was a “pig sty,” that managers regularly took off on coffee breaks at peak travel periods and that “in the current era of budgetary restraint … there is no money for training and, consequently there is no training.”
In the report, the CBSA noted some employee concerns had already been addressed, while others might be more difficult. For example, the report said transparency around promotions and hiring is “often difficult to achieve” due to privacy concerns.
Despite the abysmal survey results, particularly those surrounding morale, the CBSA concluded in its report that things are not as bad as they seem.
“In the main, staff were interested in and challenged by the work they do. They were proud of themselves and their peers and the achievements they have made. They enjoy the camaraderie of their work environment,” the report said.
“These are not hallmarks of a workforce suffering from a widespread morale problem.”
The report included a series of recommendations to improve communications, identify opportunities for training and improve transparency. The CBSA also produced an “action plan” complete with timelines last month to address the issues.
In an email late Thursday, the CBSA said it “values the views of employees and encouraged their participation” in the survey.
“The CBSA at (Vancouver International Airport) is committed to working closely with employees to continuously seek out new opportunities to improve the workplace,” wrote spokeswoman Patrizia Giolti. “CBSA management is working with employees, management, and the Customs Immigration Union to find solutions to current and emerging employee concerns.