BC Ferries is warning customers of disruptions in ferry service over the next few months, with travel between the smaller islands hit hardest, as a host of issues affect the ability to fully staff vessels.
In a Jan. 10 news release the company confirmed it is anticipating staffing issues and weather will result in unplanned disruptions, a week after ferry union president Eric McNeely said multiple structural issues were leading to low morale and potential burnout among workers. A spate of cold weather and crewing issues in late December and into January led to cancellations on routes across the ferry network, including Tsawwassen to the Southern Gulf Islands and to Swartz Bay, as well as between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay.
Inter-island routes will be most affected, BC Ferries stated. A number of changes have already taken place on the Southern Gulf Islands to Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen routes between Jan. 17 and Feb. 3, including the cancellation of nearly all afternoon sailings from Long Harbour.
“There is no single factor driving service interruptions,” BC Ferries stated. “It is a combination, including the Omicron variant’s potential to impact employee wellness, regular cold and flu season, severe winter storms, vaccination policies that have reduced crew availability and the global shortage of professional mariners making it difficult to hire replacement staff.”
COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading Omicron variant are causing staffing issues across Canadian industry. WestJet, which has 4,500 employees compared with BC Ferries’ 5,000, cut 15 per cent of scheduled flights into the end of January as active cases among staff increased by 35 per cent. How much the virus is impacting ferry workers is currently not known.
Ferry staff have to be vaccinated according to both BC Ferries policy and Transport Canada regulations. All onboard workers must have their second dose by Jan. 24, followed by Feb. 28 for all other employees. BC Ferries is also deciding on the accommodation requests of around 100 to 200 employees on Jan. 15, for workers who’ve asked for exemptions from the vaccine mandate on medical, religious or human rights grounds.
BC Ferries confirmed that only around one per cent of their circa 5,000 employees have indicated that they are not vaccinated. Employees who aren’t vaccinated and haven’t been granted an accommodation will be placed on leave without pay, a Nov. 5, 2021 union memo stated, a matter that the union and the ferry corporation don’t agree on.
BC Ferries touched on the complexities involved in crewing a vessel, including the number of skilled mariners required onboard as per Transport Canada regulations, as well as where all of the crew members live and work. Vessels can’t sail without the appropriate amount of crew and even a few crew members unavailable can have a “significant impact on service if replacements are challenging to find.”
To avoid cancelling sailings, BC Ferries stated they rely on staffing pools with reserve crew, as well as cross training and paying overtime for employees who cover shifts.
In a Dec. 31 interview with the Driftwood, McNeely said low morale and potential for burnout among staff is “palpable.” Apart from the factors cited by BC Ferries, McNeely noted that structural issues including a dwindling backup staff pool, a lack of affordable housing, especially on the smaller islands where some ferries dock overnight, and crew working overtime to make ends meet.
“The whole system, in my opinion, right now is virtually running on overtime because there’s no staff so people are coming in on their days off trying to keep it working,” he said.
When McNeely’s comments were shared on a Salt Spring residents’ transportation Facebook group, a half dozen people pointed to BC Ferries’ on-call hiring policy as a main issue. McNeely also noted that having employees on call seven days a week without a set schedule prevents workers from planning their lives, with some even delaying having a family “because of the instability of the on-call life.”