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COVID-19 still taking wind out BC Ferries’ sails

Train, ferry operators struggle to cope with overheated summer travel volume
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Ferry traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels in B.C., but staffing ships is proving to be a major problem.

If you planned to travel from the Lower Mainland to Vancouver Island, or vice versa, during the Canada Day long weekend, you may have either cancelled your plans, or had your plans cancelled for you.  

Mechanical failure took out the Queen of Alberni on Thursday, June 30. Four return sailings between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay in Nanaimo were cancelled the same day and two were cancelled on July 1, just as the Canada Day long weekend was starting.

But mechanical problems are the least of British Columbia Ferry Services Inc.’s (BC Ferries) current worries. Like so many other travel sector operators, BC Ferries has faced serious staffing challenges, largely due to the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ships are running on overtime right now,” said Eric McNeely, president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union. “There’s a lot of people taking a lot of work on their days of rest to keep the vessels running.”

With travel restrictions now lifted, tourists are flocking back to B.C. Car traffic on BC Ferries vessels this summer has been two per cent higher than in the summer of 2019, said BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins.

“This is on track to be a record vehicle year,” he said.

But whether they travel by plane, train or ferry, travellers may encounter snarls and lineups, cancellations and long waits, because many operators in the travel sector are still struggling with staffing issues.

Despite a recent hiring binge, BC Ferries has in recent months had to cancel a number of sailings or reduce sailings on some routes due to a lack of minimum crewing numbers. Some passenger train operators have faced similar challenges.

For more than two years, Amtrak ceased operating the popular Cascades passenger train service between Seattle and Vancouver, due to cross-border travel restrictions.

Now that those travel restrictions are gone, Amtrak wants to reinstate the popular route, but hasn’t been able to because it doesn’t have enough train crews. 

“Amtrak Cascades trains will resume service between the two cities… when Amtrak has solved their staffing shortage,” the company says.

Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury passenger train service running between Alberta (Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper) and Vancouver, also faces staffing challenges, but is at least back in service. 

“We are tracking to around 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in terms of guest counts,” said Nicole Ford, Rocky Mountaineer vice-president of communications.

Rocky Mountaineer ceased service in 2020, but resumed in 2021. In June, it hired 75 new workers.

“Like much of the travel and hospitality industry, including the third-party hotels, tour operators, transportation and other suppliers we partner with, staffing continues to be a challenge,” Ford confirmed.

 “However, we expect this latest round of recruiting will position us well for the remainder of this season.”

As for BC Ferries, it is trying to cope with the surge in summer travel at a time when it is still affected by COVID-19 rules and the virus itself.

BC Ferries temporarily lost about 150 experienced workers to vaccine mandates. Those workers who refused to get vaccinated were, until recently, on unpaid leave. Any time a ferry worker tests positive for COVID-19, he or she is required to book off sick.

In January, BC Ferries warned there would likely be service disruptions this year because of a shortage of experienced ferry crews and went on a hiring spree. Several routes have had reductions in sailings since then, due to the crew shortages.

Pre-pandemic, on a given day, BC Ferries might have 150 workers book off work due to things like illness or injury.

“That number, in June, on average, on any given day, is 600,” Collins said.

That’s largely due to “COVID absenteeism,” but it’s also due to a backlog that has delayed workers from getting doctor’s notes for injuries. Collins said BC Ferries is not being affected by the retirement wave so much as it is by the pandemic.

The vaccine mandate for ferry workers was eliminated June 20. Collins expects about two-thirds of the 150 workers who have been off without pay to return to work. In the last six weeks, BC Ferries hired 500 new seasonal and casual workers and has hired 850 since January.

Most of those new hires are for entry-level positions. That does little to address absenteeism for specialized areas, like ship captains and mechanical engineers.

“We’re basically fully staffed up,” Collins said. “We now have more staff than we had pre-COVID. There are a couple of hot spots – a couple of job classifications – which we’re still short, and they happen to be critical qualifications.”

Though the recent hiring of an additional 850 workers is a “significant increase,” McNeely said there is a problem with retention among seasonal and casual workers.

For example, a casual or seasonal worker who expected to work on the Queen of Alberni over the Canada Day long weekend may have had his or her shifts cancelled.

“Because some of the work is precarious in nature, people aren’t staying,” McNeely said. 

nbennett@biv.com

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