Addressing staffing shortages in Halifax will be an uphill battle: mayor

·3 min read
HRM Mayor Mike Savage says the city is working to recruit more transit staff, but it's an uphill battle thanks to the widespread labour shortage. ((Robert Guertin, CBC) - image credit)
HRM Mayor Mike Savage says the city is working to recruit more transit staff, but it's an uphill battle thanks to the widespread labour shortage. ((Robert Guertin, CBC) - image credit)

The city is working to address staffing shortages that have disrupted ferry and bus routes, as well as garbage collection, in Halifax Regional Municipality this summer, but Mayor Mike Savage says it will be an uphill battle.

"It's the same thing that's causing shortages in everything else," said Savage.

"It's the reason that restaurants are closed that normally would be open and busy. It's why we've got construction projects that are being put on hold. We can't get as many people in the health services sector as we want — there just seems to be a shortage of labour across the board."

Disruptions affect buses, ferries, waste collection

The city began cancelling "select" bus trips in July and last week announced similar disruptions to the Alderney ferry service.

More than 70 bus trips have been cancelled, and that number can fluctuate from day to day based on staffing availability.

Similarly, the planned disruption means the Alderney ferry is running every 30 minutes after 2 p.m. rather than every 15 minutes. The city said in a release that the Woodside ferry service wouldn't be affected, but on Monday, 12 trips on that ferry were cancelled due to a lack of staff.

Solid waste collection has also been affected throughout the summer. The city reported multiple instances of late collection and two cases of outright cancellations in HRM.

Waste collection company REgroup, which holds more than half of HRM's solid waste collection contracts, blamed the problems on staffing shortages brought on by sick leave and early retirement.

No quick or easy fix

Savage said the city is looking into recruiting transit staff from outside HRM and even Nova Scotia, but noted that shortages exist everywhere.

"If you Google transit shortages, you'll find Ontario and Brantford, in Missouri and Boston and in Washington and everywhere else," said Savage.

Savage said the city will "look at some creative ways" to recruit transit workers, but would not elaborate.

Currently, the city's efforts are focused on recruitment by increasing advertising through print and social media campaigns.

There is no timeline for when transit could get back to normal and the city would not provide an estimate of the number of staff needed to get transit on track.

Union calls for increased pay, improved working conditions

The president of the union representing HRM transit workers estimates as many as 40 new employees are needed.

Up to 16 operators can be trained at a time in seven-week courses offered by transit. One such course is underway and another is set to begin in October.

But O'Leary said that doesn't guarantee 32 new operators by the winter. Earlier this month, he said it's common for operators to leave the post right after — or sometimes even during— the training course.

"Once people start learning about overtime, once they start learning about the working conditions, they drop out," said O'Leary.

He said the city needs to increase pay and improve working conditions to make the job more appealing.

Halifax council's transportation standing committee asked for a staff report on Aug. 25 to examine the "challenges related to public safety in the Halifax Transit system," citing harassment and abuse of passengers and employees.

With the city's population on the rise and an ambitious plan to add electric buses to the fleet, Savage said there's some urgency to addressing the staffing shortages.

"There's going to be a lot of demands on our transit system in the years to come."