COVID-19: A Threat to Diversity Progress

  • July 17, 2020
  • Argiro Kotsalis

COVID-19: A Threat to Diversity Progress

What happens to grounds gained for diversity when an organization faces downsizing due to COVID-19? If the priorities baked into the collective bargaining agreement are not aligned with the organizational values supporting diversity, it puts that progress at risk.

Diversity at YVR

Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA) is the community-based, not-for-profit organization that operates and manages Vancouver International Airport (YVR). For many years, VAA has focused on creating an inclusive workplace, one that benefits from diversity of thought and experience, and reflects the rich diversity of the communities we serve.

By the end of 2019, women in management had increased to 46%, closing in on our 50% stretch target, and visible minorities made up 21% of the management team, bringing us nearer to our target of 25%.

VAA’s Board of Directors is 43% women and 21% come from the other designated groups. Our Executive Team is comprised of 78% women, and both our CEO and Chair of the Board are women—an achievement in an industry with a reputation for being male dominated.

VAA recognizes that Indigenous people are an important part of the communities we serve, as YVR is located on Sea Island in the heart of Musqueam territory. In 2017, we entered into a 30-year Sustainability & Friendship Agreement with the Musqueam. The agreement fosters a broad range of benefits, including scholarships and a commitment to find employment opportunities at YVR for Musqueam members. This evolution in our relationship helped us to finally begin moving the needle on increasing the representation of Indigenous people in our employee base, bringing us closer to our goal with the hope of more to come.

We were also making progress on our fourth stretch target for persons with disabilities. We have an employee-driven Employment Equity and Diversity Team that provides feedback on the implementation of our employment equity programs with the objective of developing fair, equitable and barrier-free employment practices. In 2018, our former and current CEOs co-chaired the Presidents Group, a network of BC business leaders who act as champions for more accessible and inclusive workplaces. (See a promotional video for the Presidents Group on the benefits of hiring persons with disabilities, with then CEO Craig Richmond and current CEO Tamara Vrooman.)

Then in 2019, we hosted an Inclusive Hiring Fair and Open House for persons with disabilities, with representatives from 16 airport companies. We were also the first airport in North America to proudly achieve the Accessibility Certified Gold Rating under the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program.

Vancouver Airport Authority: 2019 Diversity Stretch Targets and Results
Designated Group Stretch Target 2019 Result
Women 50% 42%
     - Women in Management 50% 46%
Visible Minorities 35% 34%
     - Visible Minorities in Management 25% 21%
Indigenous People 3% 2.1%
Persons with Disabilities 8% 2.8%

While there is of course always room for improvement, all in all, most at YVR would agree that diversity is one of the cornerstones of our culture.We have been a BC Top Employer for 13 years in a row, been recognized as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for two years in a row, and were recognized with the 2019 Governance Professionals of Canada award for “Best Practices in Diversity and Inclusion” at the Board level.

Impact of COVID-19 and Layoffs

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted the aviation industry, resulting in significant passenger traffic decreases during the first half of 2020. As with many of its peers, YVR anticipates operating as a smaller airport for some time, and management made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce its workforce to align with current and forecasted operational requirements.

In May 2020, VAA began the process of laying off just under one quarter of its workforce, approximately 80% of which were bargaining unit employees.

VAA’s collective bargaining agreement is aimed at protecting those with seniority, with little or no focus on the diversity attributes of its members—a fact not unique to YVR. The agreement allows laid-off employees with higher seniority to displace other employees in an equivalent or lower ranked job, provided they can do the job or be trained to do it within a prescribed period of time. The added uncertainty created by the displacement process makes it difficult to predict which positions will be impacted, putting low service diversity employees further at risk.

How did the recent layoffs impact YVR’s diversity? Well, the dust has barely settled, but a pattern has emerged.

There is some good news, as there was minimal impact on women and visible minorities. This is likely due to longer recruiting efforts resulting in greater seniority for those employees and greater numbers in the workforce. However, due to their limited seniority, the layoffs had some impact on persons with disabilities and a substantial impact on our Indigenous employees.

We celebrated and valued each one of these hires, so this has been a difficult development in our diversity journey.

In addition to the losses of employees in these target areas, the imposed prioritization of seniority over other organizational values and objectives meant that we lost a disproportionate number of relatively recent hires. Losing this fresh talent from our employee base translates into additional decrease in our diversity of thought and experience.

Lesson Learned

VAA was formed in 1992 to operate YVR, and not once in our 28-year history have we laid off any staff—not during the period following September 11th, the SARS outbreak or the economic downturn in 2008. However, the sheer magnitude of COVID-19’s impact on the aviation industry has been unprecedented, and layoffs have been practically unavoidable.

One of the lessons learned is that had we considered the possibility of layoff risk, we may have been more attuned to potential conflicts with our collective bargaining agreement and proactively taken steps to alleviate those impacts.

As we look at our workforce going forward, there have been positive conversations with our union. For instance, union leadership has already agreed that some newly created positions will only be filled with Musqueam individuals. They have also agreed that some recent job postings for emergency response employees will be open to women candidates only.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis into a new reality, people will remain at the heart of everything we do. We are committed to regaining the diversity lost and ensuring that we continue to grow and learn as an organization.

Argiro Kotsalis is Vice President, Legal & Chief Governance Officer at the Vancouver Airport Authority. She joined the Airport Authority in October 2015 and is responsible for the legal, compliance and insurance portfolios. She also acts as conflict of interest officer, privacy officer and Corporate Secretary to the Board of Directors. Connect with her on LinkedIn.