An Air Canada flight attendant has won a fight for compensation from her employer after contracting COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. A workers arbitration court in British Colombia originally sided with the flight attendant but Air Canada appealed the decision saying there was no evidence that the flight attendant had actually contracted the novel Coronavirus during a series of long-haul international flights in March 2020.
The flight attendant was helped in her fight because British Colombia is the only province in Canada to add COVID-19 to its list of presumptive occupational illnesses. To be successful in her claim, the flight attendant simply needed to prove that the risk of being infected with COVID-19 was significantly greater in the course of her work than that faced by ordinary members of the public.
Air Canada presented evidence which it claimed proved the risk of infection onboard an aircraft was no greater than that faced by members of the public. The airline also questioned whether the flight attendant was actually infected while at work. WorkSafeBC ultimately rejected both arguments.
The unnamed flight attendant worked several long-haul international flights between March 21 and March 30, 2020, but first developed symptoms of COVID-19 on March 28. On April 4, the flight attendant went to her local hospital where a test confirmed she had been infected with the novel Coronavirus.
The flight attendant claims several people on these flights also tested positive for COVID-19 and at least two of her coworker’s developed COVID-like symptoms. Her colleagues were never tested because of strict criteria in place at the time that prevented them from accessing a test.
The flight attendant was in close contact with the other two flight attendants and took her break at the same time as them.
The original ruling said that the flight attendant was entitled to compensation because a lack of personal protective equipment put her at greater risk than an ordinary member of the public. Air Canada countered that at the time it was already providing masks, gloves and hand sanitiser for staffers which reduced the risk of exposure but these were not mandatory, and the flight attendant pointed out that the masks were not N95 certified.
Air Canada also presented a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association which concluded that “the risk of contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train”.
The board, however, said it was “unable to place significant weight” on the study because it only looked at the risk posed to passengers who generally stay sat in one place with limited movement around the cabin during a flight. “The study did not address the risk to flight attendants who would be in contact with many passengers and would move throughout the aircraft,” the board wrote in their judgement.
“The worker, who continued to work as a flight attendant and serve customers, would have had a significantly greater risk of contracting COVID-19 at that time than the public at large because of her employment,” the ruling continued.
While the board did not mention Air Canada as the employer, a spokesperson for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) confirmed that Air Canadas was the airline.
“Let’s not add insult to injury,” Wesley Lesosky, president of the CUPE airline division, told CBC News about Air Canada’s appeal. “They [flight attendants] put themselves out there. They are in the vicinity of COVID, walking through a cabin of a couple of hundred people or even a couple dozen people. It puts you at risk.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.