After days of complaints, Nova Scotia attempts to simplify COVID-19 travel application process

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WATCH: Less than one week after its new travel application process came into effect, the Nova Scotia government has changed the policy in an effort to make it easier for residents to return. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, rotational workers are still not confident in the system and calling for the process to be scrapped altogether. – May 20, 2021

Less than a week after announcing a new travel application process for permanent residents, the Nova Scotia government has changed the policy to make it simpler for some folks to come home.

Effective Thursday, permanent residents who apply via the Nova Scotia Safe Check-in process will get an automatic approval to return instead of having to wait three days, conditional on providing proof of permanent residency to border officials.

Those documents include a government-issued identification card, driver’s licence, passport, or utility bill or bank statement showing one’s permanent home address.

It’s a little more complicated for rotational workers, however, particularly those whose rotational shifts vary in length and frequency.

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

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“We don’t want to say no to anyone coming in that needs to travel away from our province for work, and I know you need to come home for your days off to see your families,” said Premier Iain Rankin, announcing the changes Wednesday at a COVID-19 briefing.

The adaptation comes in aftermath of complaints from travellers, including rotational workers, who said the strict documentation requirements were confusing, cumbersome for their employers, and too rigid for their varying work shifts and travel needs.

Earlier this week, Global News also reported on several glitches in the system identified by rotational workers, which hampered them from getting expedient approvals ahead of their travel dates.

Now, instead of providing a letter from their employer every time they want to come home, rotational workers need only submit one on their first application, and other documents may be accepted in its place.

Click to play video: 'Rotational workers encounter difficulties with travel application process' Rotational workers encounter difficulties with travel application process
Rotational workers encounter difficulties with travel application process – May 17, 2021

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

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“The documentation needs to confirm the name and location of your worksite and the rotational nature of your work,” reads an email circulated to rotational workers on Wednesday.

“It does not need to include your full schedule but it does need to show that you have a set rotational schedule that is the same all the time, such as 2 weeks on/2 weeks off.”

The province’s COVID-19 Border Entry Approvals Team will keep a record of Nova Scotians who provide such documents, so that next time they apply, the approval will come faster — “likely within one business day” — because they’ve already been identified as rotational workers.

Read more: COVID-19 — Ontario man illegally travelling to Newfoundland stopped for drunk driving in N.S.

“The proof will be in the pudding on that,” said James Bates, an oilsands worker in Fort McMurray who lives in Port Morien, N.S., and is chief of the local volunteer fire department.

“There’s been no consistency as far as messaging on the provincial government on how any of this is working…. Mind you, if what they say is correct, it will work great and definitely alleviate some of the pressures of travelling home on a consistent basis.”

Bates is one of several rotational workers who wrote to their local MLA this week, objecting to the principle of requiring government approval to get home.

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Jennifer Hutton, an IT professional who lives in Halifax and travels often to Montreal, said she’s concerned Wednesday’s changes will exacerbate her situation; she said she can obtain a letter from her employer vouching for her status as a rotational worker, but since her shifts away vary based on need, she couldn’t likely check the box of having a “set rotational schedule that is the same all the time.”

If she’s forced to apply to enter Nova Scotia as a regular, permanent resident, she added, she would lose her ability to qualify for the province’s modified self-isolation at a time when the rules for quarantining have never been stricter.

“That essentially means everybody in my household will be required to isolate with me when I’m home,” she explained.

“The modified self-isolation has been the only thing that’s kept me sane.”

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Hutton said the province’s one-size-fits-all approach “just isn’t working,” and the government should view travel through the lens of ‘essential workers,’ not ‘rotational workers,’ to better capture the reality of tens of thousands of Nova Scotia who work out of province.

Read more: Cottages outside your community off limits this long weekend, Nova Scotia top doc says

In an emailed statement, the Health and Wellness Department confirmed those without a “set rotational schedule” are not considered rotational workers and must apply to return home as permanent residents, and present their proof of permanent residency upon arrival.

Between May 17 and 19, said the department, a total of 387 rotational worker travel applications were approved and 69 were denied.

“Of those denied, anyone who applied incorrectly as a rotational worker was redirected to apply in the appropriate stream to ensure smooth entry,” said the statement. “Additionally, we have requested information from others that we will process when we receive their supporting documentation.”

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As of 4 p.m. on Thursday, an online petition to abolish the new travel application process altogether has attracted more than 3,400 signatures.

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Tim Houston, leader of the official Opposition Nova Scotia PC Party, is calling on the government to create a formal process, a “hotline” of sorts, that rotational workers can call for help navigating the application process, or in the event their application is denied.

“The rules change a lot, people have a lot of questions. Literally, sometimes they’re at the airport ready to come home, or the maybe rules change when they’re in the middle of a flight,” he said. “So how do you get answers? If it’s on an evening? A weekend?”

Houston “it’s good” that the government listened in terms of simplifying the process on Wednesday, but the province needs to go further to make rotational workers’ lives easier.

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The provincial government maintains the travel application process is necessary to keep Nova Scotians safe from COVID-19, particularly in the wake of instances of people trying to enter the province “dishonestly.”

According to the Health and Wellness Department, roughly three per cent of COVID-19 cases in the province since January have been classified as rotational workers, although the actual percentage may be higher due to a backlog in data entry.

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