COVID-19: Nova Scotia rotational workers report difficulties with travel application process

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WATCH: Nova Scotia's new travel application process has only been active for a few days, and already, rotational workers tell reporter Elizabeth McSheffrey, they're encountering problems with the system. They say they're worried it could impact their ability to get home, while Premier Iain Rankin says he's trying to find out if the process can be simplified. – May 17, 2021

Some rotational workers in Nova Scotia say they’re anxious and angry after running into difficulties with Nova Scotia’s new travel application process — glitches they fear will impact their ability to come home.

Last Friday, the province implemented a new border measure requiring permanent residents returning from essential travel to apply for re-entry through the Nova Scotia Safe Check-in process, roughly one week before they hit the road. Approvals should be granted within three business days.

“To be clear, we are not saying ‘no’ to any rotational worker,” said Premier Iain Rankin on Monday, as rotational workers started contacting reporters with their concerns.

“This is to protect them because we have strong border measures.”

Read more: Nova Scotia rotational workers concerned about new ‘application process’ for returning home

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Applicants who apply through the system receive an email back from the province’s COVID-19 Border Entry Approvals Team, requesting a letter from their employer “indicating the applicant is a rotational worker, the name and location of the work site, and details on the rotational schedule.”

Applicants are then asked to attach that document in a return email, under the authority of the Health Protection Act.

“If the adjudicator deems that the documentation does not support your claim for entry, or you fail to provide the requested information before your travel date, your application for entry to Nova Scotia will be denied,” reads the email.

“Please remember that you cannot enter Nova Scotia without approval.”

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Nova Scotia rotational workers concerned by new ‘application process’ for returning home – May 14, 2021

Colton Wagner, an oilsands worker in Fort McMurray, Alta. and Halifax resident, said one of his co-workers responded to that email with the requested documentation, and received an “undeliverable,” bounced back message from the province. Wagner shared the email with Global News.

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“I’m not sure exactly what’s going on there, but I can tell you for sure that it’s just another added headache,” he said, adding that no alternative email address has been provided to rotational workers to submit their documents.

Read more: Halifax man looking for trucking job to get travel exemption into N.B. to see dying mother

Glace Bay, N.S. native Ryan Marman, who also works in the oilsands in Fort McMurray, said he didn’t get the same email everyone else did when he first applied on Saturday to return home on May 19.

Instead, he got an email right away saying his application had been “conditonally approved” (sic), with the expectation that he show “acceptable proof of Nova Scotia residency to border officials.”

That email contained the incorrect date of his travel — May 17 instead of May 19 — and included the names of three strangers with his own as the identified “applicant(s).” Marman shared that email with Global News, and the one that followed the very same day, asking him to disregard the previous email.

This email sent to Nova Scotia rotational worker Ryan Marman informs him that his application process will start from scratch. Courtesy: Ryan Marman

Marman has since received the same email requesting documents as everyone else, but his doubts in the process — and how prepared the province was to administer it — already run deep.

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“With the information I’ve received over the weekend, if things don’t improve quick, it’s going to be a real rough system for a lot of people trying to go home,” he said. “We’d be stuck paying out of our own pocket … it’s just not right for anybody to have to go through this process.”

Rotational workers say these kinds of glitches don’t inspire confidence in a system they’re already uncomfortable with on principle alone. Many object to the idea of need the government green light to return to their homes and families.

“Everybody is paranoid, everybody is scared, everybody is doing their best to stay calm,” said David Alexander, a Nova Scotian chef whose current rotation is in Cold Lake, Alta.

“I do my self check-ins every time I’m home, I get my nose swabbed twice, sometimes three times when I’m home. I went and got my shot when it was time to get my shot, and now I get a letter saying they need confirmation that I’m a rotational worker before they’ll let me come home.”

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Vaccinated rotational workers will still have to quarantine in Nova Scotia – Apr 5, 2021

Some workers say obtaining the right documentation from their employers is an obstacle, and adds a burden to their companies’ human resources department, which may already be overwhelmed dealing with other pandemic-related matters.

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“It’s very inundating to the companies that have to try and put this new messaging out on a very person-to-person level. It’s not something that can happen overnight for a lot of people, that’s the truth,” said Ryan Benson, an oil industry contractor who lives in Antigonish, N.S.

Read more: More COVID-19 testing sites added in Nova Scotia

Benson added, the unpredictability of COVID-19 also makes rotational workers’ schedules more unpredictable, which increases the likelihood that they’ll need to travel suddenly, without adequate time to apply through the new provincial process.

In Monday’s COVID-19 briefing, Rankin said Dr. Robert Strang will be speaking with “representatives” shortly to determine whether rotational workers can obtain a single letter from their employers, rather than having to submit a new one each time.

Read more: Rotational workers get conflicting information on self-isolating from N.S. government

The provincial health department has still not answered detailed questions about the process, such as who pays for any costs incurred by workers if provincial processing errors are related to a denied application, or whether there’s any margin for error due to an honest mistake by a worker.

It’s also unclear how the province will accommodate any sudden travel needs, such as a schedule or itinerary change, or family emergency.

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“Like any Nova Scotian who has a last-minute change in their travel plans to return home, we will do our best to ensure they receive approval in time for their arrival date,” said an emailed response from Health and Wellness.

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Halifax man looking for trucking job to get travel exemption to see dying mother – May 16, 2021

Last week, a department spokesperson said the province is “confident” that the new border measure is constitutional.

Ottawa-based constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner, who specializes in parliamentary law and emergency management, said he didn’t spot any glaring constitutional red flags with the policy, provided there is a venue for Nova Scotians to appeal if their applications are denied.

Read more: Halifax police make arrests for illegal gatherings following court injunction

He said “human discretion” factors into the travel application process, so there ought to be a “built-in mechanism” for handling situations of “undue hardship.”

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“The Health Protection Order quite clearly states that permanent residents of Nova Scotia are allowed to enter into Nova Scotia, so it really comes down to more of a question of whether there was an administrative denial,” he explained.

“For example, if somebody did not provide the right documentation if they’re a rotational worker, and as long as there’s an internal appeals mechanism for that process, there really isn’t any significant concern.”

Global News has asked if such an appeals process exists and has not yet received a response.

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