BC Ferries staffing crunch impacts felt

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Last week’s cold weather exposed multiple structural issues affecting BC Ferries crew, says ferry union president Eric McNeely, after Salt Spring and mainland to Vancouver Island crossings were cancelled.

The last two round-trip sailings between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay were cancelled on Dec. 29 due to a “crewing issue.” The specific reason for the issue wasn’t provided by BC Ferries, although cancellations of the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay route Dec. 30 were due to a weather-related staffing issue. Cold weather and snowfall caused equipment problems and delays across BC Ferries’ network, including two late starts of the Quinitsa on Dec. 30 and 31 due to freezing temperatures affecting the ship’s rescue boat.

“It’s all compounding,” said McNeely, who heads up the BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union. “This flu season, COVID . . . and just the weather have really highlighted some structural issues within the ferry system as far as staffing goes,” he said. 

“We require a specific number of crew members on board the vessel to ensure the safety of our passengers in the unlikely event of an emergency and to comply with Transport Canada regulations,” communications manager Astrid Chang stated by email about the cancelled sailings.

The last-minute notice left many travellers stranded either on Salt Spring or in the Victoria area. For the last two Fulford sailings on Dec. 29, BC Ferries was unable to secure a water taxi service for those affected, which is something it has done in the past.

BC Ferries stated that customers with bookings whose sailings were cancelled last week would have reservation fees refunded, with travel instead going into a standby basis. 

Chang reminded anyone who needs help with their ferry travel to speak with BC Ferries.

“Our staff are ready to help, and requests for compensation are reviewed on a case by case basis,” she stated.  

The ferry service used to have a healthy backup staff pool as well as a good number of casual employees, whereas now, McNeely said, staffing levels are the lowest he has ever seen. While staffing of the core ship’s crew, engineers, deck officers and deckhands are more stable, he said, there are a lot fewer people to backfill for them, as well as for terminal and catering crew positions. What this means onboard the vessel is fewer cafeteria staff and difficulties replacing crew members who get sick.

How much of the BC Ferries staffing challenges are due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant is not clear.

“What we’re seeing is low crew levels, increased seasonal flus and expecting to see a marked increase in COVID cases across the fleet in the near future,” McNeely said. 

CHEK news reported Dec. 24 to 26 sailings on the Northern Sea Wolf, which services B.C.’s central coast, were cancelled after crew contracted COVID-19. While the number of crew affected was not confirmed by BC Ferries, CHEK cited five people had contracted the virus as of the Dec. 28 publication of the article. 

Other large Canadian transportation companies are being affected. On Dec. 30, WestJet told CBC they are seeing a 35 per cent increase in active cases among staff and will be forced to cut 15 per cent of scheduled flights until the end of January as a result. 

Ferries’ personnel have to be vaccinated, with Transport Canada mandating vaccination of workers onboard vessels and a BC Ferries policy regulating on-shore workers. While the Nov. 15 mandate for shipboard staff to have their first vaccine dose has had some negative impact on worker availability, McNeely said, upcoming vaccine deadlines in the new year may lead to even more challenges. 

McNeely estimates that between 100 and 200 employees have asked for accommodations with the vaccine mandate for religious, medical or other reasons protected under human rights legislation, with decisions on these requests to come this month. This will happen Jan. 6 for shipboard workers and Jan. 15 for all other BC Ferries staff. By Jan. 24, everyone working onboard ferries needs to have their second dose, i.e. be fully vaccinated, and the same requirement comes in Feb. 28 for those working on land. 

For some people, it’s not a simple “do it and get over it” approach to vaccination, McNeely said. “The people who are scared of the vaccine are entitled to those emotions just as the people who are scared of COVID are entitled to those. It’s a matter of trying to address those concerns, provide information to both parties where possible and try and ensure that the workplaces are as safe as possible.” 

The Driftwood asked BC Ferries for comment on the host of staffing issues raised by McNeely. A response was provided only about vaccine accommodations, with Chang stating that of BC Ferries’ around 5,000 employees, around one per cent have indicated they are unvaccinated.

“A small number of employees are seeking accommodations and the review of these cases is currently being completed,” she stated. “No employees have been terminated for actions related to vaccination.”

McNeely raised other structural issues that affect staffing.

A lack of affordable housing making it more difficult to assemble a whole crew for morning sailings from Gulf Islands terminals, where many ferries are docked overnight.

The whole system runs on overtime, McNeely said, with staff taking extra shifts on days off and working overtime to make ends meet. Combined with a very stressful two years where ferry operations continued and employees were deemed essential workers, the low morale and potential for burnout is palpable, he said. 

Other issues affecting BC Ferries staff include people retiring and the reduction or closure of schools training marine professions due to COVID-19. 

What the union is advocating for with BC Ferries is building resiliency of the workforce by adding new staff or increasing crew sizes so sailings can continue if someone cannot make it in to work. Increasing wages is also needed, McNeely said, as well as working on developing staff internally. 

McNeely said he understands the challenging position BC Ferries is in as a quasi-private organization, which needs to balance public opinion with the needs of its workforce.

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