How workers at Canada’s busiest port are ‘rocking and rolling’ to get food, supplies and face masks across the country amid COVID-19

VANCOUVER—Canadians across the country are sheltering at home at the recommendation of public health officials. One million Canadians who can neither work from home nor work due to COVID-19 have filed for employment insurance. The province of Ontario has shuttered all businesses deemed “non-essential.”

But while much of the country retracts, Canada’s largest port is expanding — in a way.

The port’s 55 employers are finding ways to create more physical space between workers and prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in the place where vital goods like food, cleaners and protective face masks continue to come into Canada.

At the Port of Vancouver, party tents are erected as makeshift outdoor lunchrooms for longshore workers. Dispatch centres have tape on the floor to keep workers lined up metres apart. Those workers enter one door, then leave out another to go to work.

Myriad adjustments have been made among the dozens of job titles held by the thousands of people who help move goods from cargo ships to trains and trucks and ultimately, to Canadians.

The approximately 6,500 such workers in B.C. include people loading and unloading cargo from ships, gantry drivers, tradespeople like mechanics and millwrights, welders, grain machine operators and first-aid attendants.

“We’re a critical part of this whole piece of the puzzle,” said Rob Ashton, Canada president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents those workers. “We’re doing the physical distancing — we’re rocking and rolling.”

While exact numbers for March haven’t yet been released, thousands of shipping containers continue to arrive through the port every day. Last month, about 65,000 containers came into the port and about 51,000 were shipped out, roughly a 15 per cent decrease compared to the same month last year.

They’re carrying imported food, cleaning supplies, exercise weights and the all-important personal protective equipment that Canadians need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A cargo ship heading for the Port of Vancouver follows detailed protocols set out by Transport Canada depending on the type of goods it is carrying, then heads to one of four terminals, where workers unload shipping crates and repackage goods for transport across Canada by truck or rail.

The protocols include rules about ships docking in the port while there are concerns about contagious infection. But the port authority Tuesday confirmed no ships have been flagged for concerns related to the coronavirus since the outbreak began.

And the port employers aren’t yet aware of any COVID-19 positive cases among their workers — although they’re preparing for that eventuality, said John Beckett, vice-president of operations at the B.C. Maritime Employers Association.

“Our workforce is anxious, and you understand why,” Beckett said. “This is an equal-opportunity virus.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Until this week, the port was dealing with a backlog of cargo ships in the area, thanks to the combination of a landslide that had to be cleared, the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests on the CN Rail tracks last month, and changes in ship schedules coming from China prompted by the COVID-19 crisis in that country.

On Tuesday, though, in contrast with almost every other industry in the country, all the Port of Vancouver terminals were operating normally, according to an online dashboard.

“The Port of Vancouver is open for business,” reads a portion of a March 16 letter the authority sent to stakeholders. “(The port) plays a vital economic role in Canada by connecting consumers and business with the global marketplace.”

That doesn’t mean everything is business as usual. The port has made unusual changes aimed at preventing COVID-19 spread, such as eliminating the need for truck drivers to touch keypads to get into the port, and not requiring staff to board inbound vessels that need fuelling.

Among longshore workers, there’s also been a fair share of trepidation about the virus Ashton said.

“Those who aren’t worried about it need to get worried about it,” he said. “There is a little person that sits on your shoulder and says ‘hey, watch that step.’”

But to longshore workers who always deal with the possibility of injury on the job, it’s not so new.

“In the longshore industry, we live with that voice every day,” Ashton said.

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As president of the union, Ashton travels around various work sites to make sure everyone has what they need. His wife, who is a longshore worker, was on one of the sites he visited Tuesday — but even with her, he kept two metres back.

And once work is over, they both stay home.

Correction — March 27, 2020: This article has been edited from a version that misspelled the name of John Beckett, the vice-president of operations at the B.C. Maritime Employers Association.

Alex McKeen
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen