Bundled in a black toque and winter jacket, Rob Huang sat on a sidewalk in downtown Vancouver one early morning this week watching a YouTube video to pass the time.
In a scene that has been repeated many times over the past several weeks, he and dozens of others were lining up to get to Service Canada’s passport kiosk — except he wasn’t doing it for himself.
Huang is part of a small cottage industry, made up of mostly students and out-of-work professionals, trying to earn some quick cash by camping overnight on behalf of customers at one of five centers in BC that issue passports in a matter of days .
“It’s lucky that there is a 24-hour cafe across the street,” the university student told Postmedia. “I loaded up on snacks before getting in line at 2 am I am middle of the pack.”
Bringing an Android tablet to help pass the time, Huang figured, “If I’m going to sit around and watch Netflix, I might as well get paid for it.”
Huang began advertising his line-waiting services Tuesday on Kijiji. Others posted similar ads on websites such as Craigslist and Facebook.
“For up to 24 hours, I will stand in line for your passport renewal,” Huang’s ad reads. “I can call or text you when it’s almost your turn, and I charge $35/hr and an additional $50 per night.”
As COVID travel restrictions ease, Service Canada branches have faced an influx of British Columbians waiting in line for a new passport or to have passports renewal.
Between April 1, 2021 and March 31 of this year, the federal agency said it issued 910,000 more documents than the previous year, during which 363,000 were picked up or mailed out.
The agency previously told Postmedia that staffing was limited at Service Canada centers and specialized passport offices because of federal COVID mandates, but the government was working overtime to speed up processing.
“If you are traveling within the next two business days, please visit a specialized passport site offering urgent pick-up. Proof of travel or need is required,” the agency’s website states.
Some people in urgent need of a passport have gone so far as to set up tents.
Annay Burke realized hours before her flight to California that her passport was missing. So her mother agreed to sleep in a tent overnight to help her out.
“When we came to this country from Poland, we didn’t always see eye to eye. So when my mom finds a way to show her support, I let her,” Burke said.
By 6 am Friday, the doors to downtown Vancouver’s Service Canada office opened to a flood of passport seekers.
“Once we got in, everybody was in a panic,” recalls Prince George resident Blake Konig, who spent Wednesday and Thursday nights in line hoping to renew his expired passport.
“After waiting all night, staff told me Wednesday morning to come back closer to my Monday flight date. They bumped people whose flights were within 12 hours to the front of the line.”
Huang, whose last job was as a hospital tech support worker, said his client — a father whose young son needed a passport — showed up to take his spot in line around 9 am
“He paid me more than $400 in cash and even brought me a nice hearty breakfast. It was more than what I was making hourly working in IT.”
Before swapping places in line, the client booked a last-minute flight to Seattle for this weekend “to prove his son needed a passport,” Huang said.
Although Huang was ecstatic to receive payment for his wait-in-line service, he doesn’t expect such lucrative opportunities to last much longer.
“I don’t think there will be a need, once all the travel hype dies down,” he said. “I’m planning to stick with it for the next few weeks, though, and take on new clients.”