OTTAWA—Border guards at Toronto’s island airport have been hitting up taxpayers for the cost of their daily commute to work, seeking reimbursement for mileage, meal allowances and even overtime — at $60 an hour — for time they spend on the road.
That’s because the officers assigned to the Billy Bishop airport are deemed to be on “travel status” from other offices in the Greater Toronto Area, making them eligible to claim expenses, according to documents obtained by the Star.
The Canada Border Services Agency estimated last year it could be on the hook for $207,764 in mileage and meals plus another $426,763 in travel overtime for one year alone, the documents show.
The five-year cost for travel expenses could ring in at $2.4 million, according to a department estimate, obtained under access to information legislation.
A spokesperson for the CBSA refused to say whether the agency is actually paying for the daily commutes of its island airport workers, saying only that it considers claims on a “case-by-case basis” under federal travel directives.
“Employees may only submit a claim for mileage expenses and meal allowances if they are entitled to reimbursement under these established guidelines,” Anna Pape said in email.
Pape said that “only eligible travel expenses” have been paid.
“As this matter is currently the subject of an internal recourse, the Canada Border Services Agency is unable to provide additional details as that would be inappropriate,” Pape told the Star.
It’s not clear what “recourse” is underway at the CBSA.
But internal CBSA documents suggest that the several dozen border officers at the Billy Bishop airport — on assignment outside their “headquarters” — are on “travel status” and thus eligible for reimbursement for such expenses.
In 2013, all 26 CBSA employees who worked at the airport submitted claims for mileage and meals in the 2012-13 fiscal year and a few sought reimbursements for expenses in previous years, according to the documents.
Some even submitted timesheets, claiming the time they were on the road to and from work. Those claims were put on hold “awaiting further direction,” according to an April 2013 email.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said officers are making claims under a Treasury Board directive that applies to every federal employee travelling on business.
“It’s not that they are being paid under special conditions. They are only paid as per the travel policy under the Treasury Board because it’s not their work location,” he said.
He said the expenses apply because of the temporary nature of the work assignments to the island airport as the CBSA draws in staff from other area locations, such as Pearson International Airport.
He said the problem could be solved if the postings were made permanent.
“It is expensive. We absolutely agree. We support the fact that we should have officers on a permanent basis at Billy Bishop,” Fortin said in an interview.
“If they want to avoid that, they should put more staff permanent at Billy Bishop,” he said.
“I guess they miscalculated that they need to pay them because it’s not their work location. I don’t know if it’s a mistake or an (oversight),” Fortin said.
The claims do appear to have caught managers at the Canada Border Services Agency off-guard as they struggled last year to understand the potential cost of the employee demands and how to handle them.
The problem dates back to the 2009 announcement by Peter Van Loan, then minister of public safety, who promised to expand the customs services provided at the island airport to accommodate Porter Airlines’ growing service to U.S. destinations.
The department ramped up its staffing at the waterfront airport, drawing on staff from other offices elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area.
But because the island airport is more than 16 kilometres from the GTA facilities deemed as their “headquarters,” the employees working there are on so-called travel status and eligible to claim expenses, according to the department’s financial managers.
“They are entitled to travel expenses such as mileage and meal allowances . . . In addition, they are entitled to compensation for travelling time,” reads a briefing note prepared for the CBSA’s regional director general.
The note said the department could pay all past travel claims and tell staff to continue submitting claims or pay the claims for 2012-13 only — when managers were alerted to the situation — and all future claims.
A third option was censored from the document provided to the Star.
That briefing note estimated the officers commute 90 minutes a day, at an overtime rate of $59.74 an hour.
In a sign of internal wrangling over the expense claims, one briefing note suggested the department is not on the hook because it gave the employees 30 days’ notice of their assignment to the island airport. Yet another said that email notification was not sufficient.
Meanwhile, the documents also reveal that the shuffling of border guards to the island airport meant staffing shortages in other parts of the border services agency operations, prompting warnings that the lack of vigilance posed a security risk.
According to an undated CBSA memo, the employees assigned to the island airport were drawn from the international mail processing centre, creating a shortage of officers that meant reduced enforcement and mail backlogs.
The short-staffed contingent of officers was doing fewer parcel examinations and seizures dropped off dramatically, the memo says.