‘Constant anxiety’: What it’s like for essential workers crossing the border

Rules unevenly applied. Frustrating apps. The fear of quarantine. For Ontarians who commute to the U.S., the pandemic has brought a host of new challenges
By Mary Baxter - Published on Apr 29, 2021
Dave Wye, a veteran trucker, and his wife, Merri. (Courtesy of Dave Wye)

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During a chilly February drive, the heater in Dave Wye’s truck cab broke. The veteran trucker, who specializes in shipping alcohol, stopped at a shop in Ohio to replace and repair it. Arriving at the border, he declared the purchase to the customs officer. “Then he starts giving me a hard time about it,” Wye recalls. “He says, ‘You’re only allowed essential travel. This will disqualify you from essential job [status] and you’ll have to quarantine for 14 days.’”

Pre-pandemic, lineups were the biggest headache for workers who routinely crossed the Canada-U.S. border for work. Ever since March 2020, when these borders closed to non-essential travel, the lineups have vanished. In their place are a cluster of virus-related challenges.

Some workers say these problems are creating unbearable stress. “Trying to get home every night has been a nightmare,” says Lisa Redmond, a registered nurse from Windsor who has worked at a Detroit hospital for nearly 24 years. “It’s the constant anxiety that I’m just not going to be allowed back into my country.”

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Uneven application of rules

Most people crossing into Canada, whether by land or air, must follow rules imposed under the federal Quarantine Act, such as taking a COVID-19 test within three days of leaving the U.S., quarantining for 14 days after arrival, and testing again upon arrival and on the eighth day of quarantine. People such as Wye and Redmond, who routinely cross land borders for work and fall under the federal definition of essential workers, are exempt from quarantine and mandatory testing.

Laurie Tannous, a Windsor immigration and border lawyer and special adviser to the University of Windsor Cross-Border Institute, says, however, that the federal definition leaves room for subjective interpretation: “If you get a border-services officer who says, ‘I don’t think you’re essential,’ you’re still going to have a problem.”

Cross-border workers who travel periodically — once every two or three weeks — are experiencing the greatest difficulty, she says, attributing that to changes the Public Health Agency of Canada introduced in February. New testing and quarantine requirements came into effect, and workers seeking an exemption had to demonstrate a “pattern of travel which is generally defined as daily or weekly” to qualify as essential.

In one instance, a contractor was fined nearly $4,000 when his routine travel across the border was deemed non-essential, according to the CBC. (Penalties under the Quarantine Act include fines from $3,000 to a maximum of $750,000, six months in prison, and admission into a federally designated quarantine facility.)

Tannous says the decision to target such workers is counterintuitive because it pressures workers to cross the border more frequently and, in the process, exposes them at a higher risk of exposure to the virus. “You’re putting these essential workers and then other Canadians at risk unnecessarily because of not having clear enough guidance,” she says, adding that federal orders-in-council — which enhance existing legislation — can help. "They [should] issue orders-in-council almost every other month to provide some clarity — who is exempt and when," she says.  To date, however, “there is no definition as to what that [pattern of travel requirement] means.”

a large bridge over water
The Ambassador Bridge links Windsor and Detroit. (Mary Baxter)

A Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson tells TVO.org via email that a “regular pattern of travel” generally means daily or weekly travel but that “a traveller may be able to establish a regular pattern of travel of some other frequency.” Nevertheless, workers will be subject to all public-health requirements if they cross for a purpose outside their “scope” of employment or to a destination other than their regular workplace or outside of their pattern of travel, he writes.

Quarantine and tests

Wye was able to avoid quarantine and tests after explaining to the officer that having heat in winter is essential. “He wasn’t very apologetic,” Wye says. “He just kind of slammed his window shut and away I went.”

Yet regular workers whose border trip has been deemed non-essential can find their lives turned upside down. That’s what happened to Theresa Millben, a Tecumseh nurse, after she was hired to work at a hospital in Dearborn, Michigan.

On her return from an appointment to complete paperwork for her new job in February, a border guard ordered her to quarantine. The guard had deemed the trip non-essential. “I was just like, oh my goodness, this doesn’t make any sense,” she says.

Millben missed her second COVID-19 vaccination shot because of the quarantine. She worried she’d miss her work start date but says she was told that she could break the quarantine to go to work. “That was mind-boggling to me,” she says.

Cross-border programs

Workers have also criticized the design of the ArriveCAN smartphone app that everyone returning to Canada, including essential workers, must use. The federal app monitors border entrants’ compliance with quarantine and testing requirements by collecting contact information, quarantine plans, and symptom self-assessments.

The program doesn’t store information, so workers must fill it out every time they cross. Sean Hopkins, a nurse at a Detroit hospital, fills it out four to six times a week. It’s “more of a hassle than anything else,” he says, adding that customs officers don’t always check it. 

Tannous says the technology exists that would allow the federal government to create a section in the app to address the needs of essential workers. “Why we’re not utilizing it, I don’t know, other than I believe that the information of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis is not getting to Ottawa,” she says.

One potential way to better standardize the border-crossing experience for these

long-haired woman in glasses
Lisa Redmond has worked at a Detroit hospital
​​​​​​​for nearly 24 years. (Courtesy of Lisa Redmond)

workers, she says, would be to tie the ArriveCAN program to NEXUS, a bi-national program that pre-approves low-risk travellers entering either side of the border. The hurdle here, she says, is that NEXUS administration offices have been closed throughout the pandemic, making renewals impossible. Dedicated lanes have also been closed at some crossings. 

Mel MacLellan, who trucks Windsor-built minivans and trucks to Michigan and Ohio, says the company he works for is enrolled in a pilot program that streamlines border crossings. Called the Secure Corridor Concept — Trusted Trader Pilot, the federal program remotely monitors the border entry and progress of commercial shipments. Introduced in late 2018, the pilot operates at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor. The program has a dedicated lane at the bridge and requires drivers to hold up cards that are scanned by a transponder.

MacLellan still has to fill out the ArriveCAN app, but he notes that he rarely speaks to a Canadian border guard. “Every now and then, they will pull us in with a random cab check just to make sure you haven’t stopped — to keep you honest,” he says.   

The CBSA spokesperson tells TVO.org that only people who can’t submit a digital quarantine plan because of disability or issues such as internet-service disruption are exempt from filling out the ArriveCAN webpage or app. Until other solutions are found, Millben says, if she’s challenged at the border, she'll be standing her ground. “If they start to harass me about why I was away, I tell them where I work,‘” she says. If they start to hem and haw, she asks for the guard’s name and badge number.

“That usually shuts them down,” she says.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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