Halifax Transit shortages will continue for weeks, union predicts

·3 min read
Dozens of Halifax Transit bus routes have been cancelled as the city struggles with staff shortages due to high COVID-19 case numbers. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Dozens of Halifax Transit bus routes have been cancelled as the city struggles with staff shortages due to high COVID-19 case numbers. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

The union representing Halifax Transit workers predicts staff shortages due to high COVID-19 cases will continue for the next few weeks, leaving an "unreliable" service throughout January.

As of Friday, at least 30 Halifax Transit workers had tested positive for the virus and another 90 are self-isolating while awaiting test results or as close contacts.

Ken Wilson, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, said more than 150 operators are off the job when those numbers are combined with others who are off citing burnout or various injuries.

Wilson said he's never seen such high absenteeism over his 20 years in transit, and the Omicron variant has operators worried about their safety, the safety of their families and transit riders.

"This used to be a career that you would stay for 25, 30 years and now people are staying a couple of years and leaving," Wilson said Friday.

"The majority of the operators and the ferry workers feel like … they're sitting ducks. It's only a matter of time before they get it."

CBC
CBC

Last week, Halifax Transit issued a notice saying that more than 30 bus routes had been cancelled due to staffing and the disruptions would continue until further notice.

That had grown to more than 70 bus routes by Friday. On Thursday, the Alderney and Woodside ferries were reduced to 30-minute service for the forseeable future.

But free New Year's Eve bus and Alderney Ferry service was set to proceed on Friday.

While Wilson said he understands it's important to help people get home safely, it's unsafe in the current pandemic wave.

"The problem is that after six o'clock, [the] majority of buses are nothing more than a babysitting service for drunk teenagers," Wilson said.

"I know what goes on on buses. I know that you can't police the bus when there's no fare because people are running in and out of every door. You know, it's a really, really bad situation."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Wilson said Halifax Transit should have introduced further precautions weeks ago, like enforcing the mask mandate, suspending fares so people board buses at the back entrance, and limiting capacity on buses.

Ryan Nearing, a spokesperson with the municipality, said in an email that the New Year's Eve service ensures that people "who have no other options are able to get where they need to go safely, including many essential frontline workers who use public transit."

Given more people gathering together to celebrate Christmas and New Year's, Wilson said he's worried about a "really dark" start to 2022 with more transit operators likely contracting the virus.

Union calls for police to step up enforcement

"I don't know where this is going to go. So I'm thinking it's going to be a rough couple of weeks, maybe the month of January's going to be tough … but hopefully we can get everyone through it."

Nearing said the city's policy is that passengers who are unable to wear masks for medical reasons are still permitted to use transit. He also said that ridership is at less than 50 per cent of normal levels for this time of year.

If the city won't make a hard policy requiring masks at all times, Wilson said the burden should fall on Halifax Regional Police to enforce the rules, as they would in any restaurant or public place.

When asked whether Halifax police were looking to increase transit enforcement, spokesperson Const. John MacLeod said people are urged to contact police if they believe someone is violating COVID-19 public health regulations "so that it can be investigated."

He said regional police have not issued any summary offence tickets related to people on Halifax Transit since Dec. 6.

In the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, CUPE 759 president Kevin Ivey said Friday there were no positive COVID-19 cases among their transit operators.

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