Coast communities riding out ferry service disruptions due to COVID-19 staffing crunch

·5 min read

After a recent rash of service disruptions due to wild weather, coastal communities relying on BC Ferries as an essential service are going to face more interruptions to their lifeline in the coming months.

Absenteeism due to the Omicron variant, an ongoing labour shortage, and the impending loss of staff who oppose the company’s vaccination mandate are likely to lead to additional service disruptions, particularly on the smaller inter-island routes, said BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall on Monday.

These routes are particularly vulnerable, as those vessels operate with smaller crews and have less backfill staff than larger ferries serving the mainland and Vancouver Island, Marshall said.

“And with this new variant, even though people are double vaccinated, more people are getting sick,” Marshall said.

“Our employees are doing the right thing by calling in sick. We want them to stay at home if they’re ill, but it is affecting our ability to crew vessels.”

The staffing crunch due to vaccine hesitancy is comparable to other companies, Marshall said.

Less than five per cent of BC Ferries employees are likely to be put on temporary leave without pay starting Jan. 24 because they won’t adhere to the company and Transport Canada’s mandate that workers be double vaxxed, she said.

“We certainly respect people's personal decision whether to get vaccinated or not, but we do have a mandatory vaccination policy,” Marshall said.

A global shortage of professional mariners is also making it difficult to hire replacement staff, she said.

The anticipated disruptions are further compounded by the typical challenges associated with winter weather, Marshall added.

“We certainly recognize we are a critical link for a lot of our customers … who have and need to get goods and services to their communities,” she said.

“So we’re doing our utmost to make sure we’re able to provide service on all our routes.”

Some sailings may face modified schedules, but no route is expected to be suspended completely.

BC Ferries relies on crew reserves and cross-trains employees so they can be dispatched to other locations and pays overtime to workers who fill staffing gaps.

But if these measures are inadequate, regular service may be modified, BC Ferries said.

Multiple sailings between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday due to staffing issues.

And regular service between Powell River and Texada Island was also modified, Marshall said. Regular sailings were curbed and paired with water taxi services from Jan. 6 to 9.

Eric McNeely, president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, said concerns regarding potential staff shortages are months in the making.

“We’ve been raising this with the employer since August,” McNeely said.

“What we're seeing, I guess, is sort of a bit of a perfect storm at the moment.”

Even before the pandemic, crew levels were tight, he said.

But COVID-related issues — the loss of staff to vaccine hesitancy paired with burnout — are only likely to aggravate the situation in the near future.

“The people who are able to work are working as much as they can to try to keep the system functioning,” McNeely said.

“But at a certain point, everyone needs a rest, and if anyone gets sick, that's the real challenge.”

The overall staffing shortage is also due to the fact BC Ferries’ wages and pensions are not as competitive as they once were, making it difficult to attract skilled workers in a tight market, McNeely said.

And with bare-bones staffing, worker retention becomes a challenge because people are being called in more often and are having difficulty scheduling time off, he said.

As well, more than a quarter of BC Ferries’ workforce is over the age of 55 and nearing retirement.

“That means they could go at any point, and the contraction of that demographic hasn't been adequately prepared for by the employer,” he said.

Quadra Island regional director Jim Abram said island communities like his rely on ferry service to obtain essential services and get to work, school and medical care.

“Of course, it's going to have implications for communities,” Abram said.

But he agreed it’s important BC Ferries workers stay home if they’re sick to protect the communities they serve. They should also be getting double vaxxed for the same reason, he said.

“I have no sympathy for vaccine hesitancy in a pandemic,” Abram said, pointing out vessel staffing shortages could make it difficult for essential medical personnel to get to work both on and off the island, or for critical supplies like fuel to be delivered.

“Every level of government has been asked by public health to do everything we can to spread the word to get vaccinated,” he said.

But generally, ferry service staffing shortages have been a long-time issue, he added.

BC Ferries might have to emulate measures taken by the health-care sector during the pandemic and call back recent retirees, Abram said.

“Maybe they need to start thinking about asking people to come back to work.”

Cortes Island regional director Noba Anderson said she was confident remote coastal communities will continue to get the ferry services they need.

“I trust BC Ferries will continue to deliver the best service that they can during the pandemic and given global circumstances,” she said.

“The ferries are both our lifeline and a real privilege.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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