Cars at the Autoport. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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The confirmation of two COVID-19 cases of Autoport employees has heightened concerns among workers already uneasy about their inability to maintain social distancing on the job.

“I represent both CN and ViaRail (workers) and there are cases throughout workplaces where people are being exposed to the virus because those places are all still employed as essential services,” said Terry McKimm, president of UNIFOR Local 100, the union representing the workers.

“It was really just a matter of time when you have that many people. There are 300 people there all working in close contact. It was bound to happen.”

On Monday night, workers at Eastern Passage-based Autoport received an email informing them that two team members had tested positive for COVID-19. The email stated that all work areas were being professionally disinfected and workers would be recalled when the process was complete.

McKimm said while the work of Autoport’s owner, CN Rail, is deemed essential, the union doesn’t believe that status should apply to Autoport workers.

“The work that’s supposed to be covered is work that’s directly related to operation and maintenance of the railway, and essentially they’re a large parking lot,” he said. “They (Autoport workers) move cars from one side to the other.”

McKimm said changes “absolutely need to be made” on the site. He said a little more than a week ago, 10 workers were sent home without pay for refusing to get into vans. Due to their inability to maintain social distancing requirements in such close quarters, they deemed the action unsafe.

McKimm said they’ve filed union grievances on behalf of those workers.

“When the 10 people refused to work, the manager of the plant went to the additional workers that perform that job and told them that they had a choice to go home without pay or get in the van and do the job,” McKimm said.

“The order from the Nova Scotia government absolutely says social distancing is to be practiced. The current practices at Autoport are not meeting the social distancing measures that are supposed to be implemented.”

An employee we’ve agreed not to name as he fears repercussions told the Halifax Examiner that several workers in the operations division are “terrified” about having to go home to their families after spending time in such close proximity to their co-workers.

“The simple fact is that we move mostly BMW, Mercedes around, and locally we bring cars in which would be Fords, Dodges, etc.,” he said.

“I cannot believe that the government, whichever part looks at essential services, has looked at our operation and has said this is essential. I cannot wrap my head around it. And even if there are exemptions for essential services, we’re still in close proximity and there should be no exemption for that.”

In order for them to move the vehicles, the employee said four people can often be in one van where they’re driven around on the massive lot and dropped off to pick up and move other vehicles.

While efforts were made to minimize contact by reducing the number of people from 13 to five in one of the larger vehicles used to transport workers around the site, the employee said it didn’t solve the problem outright.

“So that might help a bit, but I often drive one of the Caravans and of course I have a person sitting next to me. With winter gear and everything it’s within a foot of me and then the two people behind me, even if they sit at the rear-most seats, they are certainly within five feet of me,” the employee said.

“Most of us are hard-headed enough to think we’d do not-too-bad should we get COVID-19. But they are all terrified of bringing it home, into the community, to the public. I’ve not talked to anybody who’s thought otherwise.”

McKimm said the union is questioning why workers weren’t permitted to walk instead of getting into vans. He said although it would have slowed down work on the site, it would have allowed for social distancing. He said many workers were willing to walk but their requests were refused.

He did applaud CN for implementing more rigorous cleaning practices and cutting down the number of people in the larger vehicles by more than half.

“They have taken some measures that were not being done pre-COVID, but we still stand behind the members and their right to refuse unsafe work,” McKimm said.

“It’s a basic principle of labour law and it wasn’t handled correctly.”

In an emailed statement, CN Rail spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis said the company takes the threat of COVID-19 very seriously, noting it is “an essential part of the many supply chains that are critical to moving almost all of the consumer goods used everyday, especially during a pandemic.”

Abecassis said safety is a core value for the company. He said CN’s multi-phase pandemic plan, which includes protocols to protect employees, was activated on March 9.

“Autoport, a wholly owned subsidiary of CN, has implemented a variety of measures adapted to its own operations and with the same objective of protecting the health and well being of employees,” Abecassis wrote.

He also said of the two employees who tested positive for COVID-19, one worked in the rail function and the other in the services function. Neither worked in operations.

Abecassis added that both infected employees are now in self-isolation, and in collaboration with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, the company has implemented its COVID-19 protocol.

Those measures include self-isolation for all employees who may have had contact with those who were infected, along with professional disinfecting of the common areas frequented by those employees.

“We have also been in touch with the union of the employees to reassure them that the company’s protocols are in line with, or exceed, the recommendations of the Nova Scotia Health Authority,” Abecassis said. “We wish the employees a speedy recovery.”

The Halifax Examiner reached out to the province’s Department of Labour for comment but as of the time of publication had yet to receive a reply.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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