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Shifty work 

Responding to recent violent robberies, Sarah and Margaret Densmore take a stand for overnight shift workers. Ruth Mestechkin punches the clock.

Sarah Densmore stands up, fingers gripping the sides of a piece of fluorescent-pink bristol board. Thick black marker-printed letters command, "MAKE IT RIGHT 2 STAFF AT NIGHT."

She sets it down, and picks up another: "HONK FOR SAFER LABOUR STANDARDS."

"That one got the most response," she says.These signs are remnants from a rally that Sarah and her sister-in-law, Margaret Densmore, organized on August 28.

The rally was their reaction to an attack on a female employee working late at an Ultramar station in Dartmouth over a month ago. "I kept on going over it in my head that she was defenceless against this man," says Margaret. "She was forced to be at this place, she had to take this job. She was a target from the beginning."

The two Dartmouth residents started a Facebook group (now boasting nearly 700 members) the day after the attack. They've pioneered a petition for safer conditions for overnight workers, with 80 hard-copy signatures, and 122 online. They want province house to amend legislation—to provide bullet-proof enclosures, double-staffing and a pre-paid gas system.

"There's an imbalance," says Sarah. "You own a business and mop your floors: you're going to put up a "Caution' sign. You're going to take every precaution to make sure no one slips and hurts themselves. Why aren't you taking the same precautions to make sure nobody is being robbed or assaulted?"

After Dartmouth's Ultramar incident, many gas station managers opt to stay mum about their overnight shift woes, directing employees to follow suit: One woman tells me her manager left her a 1-800 customer service number to give to anyone who asked.

An 18-year-old employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, was robbed while working the back shift alone at a gas station in Fairview early September; he'd been working there for two-and-a-half years. A man rang the door buzzer, and he let him in. The man asked how much a newspaper cost, but instead of paying, he said he had a gun and climbed over the counter.

"It looked like he was going to hit me," he says in a phone interview. The robber pocketed $80 from the register, and walked out.

"I felt scared," says the young man. "I called the cops right away." He's only working part-time now, and says he'd rather quit than work the back shift again. "I think it's stupid," he says. "If you had two people , it would be different."

Sarah's husband briefly worked a back shift at a gas station. She says she would stay up all night on the phone with him to make sure he was OK. But personal ties aren't driving her actions.

"It was the survivor," she says. "That she had enough strength and presence of mind to save her own life...that empowered me."

Margaret is fighting back for those that can't fight for themselves.

"If my son decides he wants to work after school on a night shift, I'm going to be worried if he's safe," she says, as her seven-month-old gurgles beside her in his baby carrier. "I don't want any parent, or for any person to have to worry about anyone when they're working at any job. I want people to think that workplace equals safety."

Margaret and Sarah don't have an official name for their organization yet, but they're hoping to form a Nova Scotia chapter of Ontario's Canadian Initiative Against Workplace Violence. They're also planning to meet a labour critic.Maureen MacDonald, an NDP MLA for Halifax Needham, agrees the problem is serious.

"These aren't isolated, unusual circumstances. Sadly, they've been all too frequent in our province." The NDP is calling for a bill requiring that a second person be on-site during late shifts and wants to eliminate an employer's capacity to penalize a worker when a customer doesn't pay. "We're hoping this will send a message to young workers not to put themselves in harm's way," says MacDonald. But passing the bill depends on support from other parties. MacDonald can't make any timeline predictions.

Margaret and Sarah want to empower people to make a change. "We're just two people," says Sarah. "We've no badges. We've got no degrees or anything like that. We're doing the best with what we can because we know it needs to be done."

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