B.C. Ferries cuts sailings on major routes, suspends service on others

B.C. Ferries is cutting service levels in half starting Saturday due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, as many as 1,400 ferry workers face layoffs.

Some minor routes will be suspended and the frequency of service on major routes will be cut in half as the company reacts to massive reductions in traffic and takes steps to slow the financial bleeding it faces. “It’s been brutal, this is not the kind of decision anyone wants to make in their working lives,” chief executive Mark Collins said in an interview.

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The layoffs amount to 27 per cent of B.C. Ferries’ entire staff, Collins said. All areas of the corporation will be affected — on the vessels, at the terminals, in administration and management.

Collins said B.C. Ferries reached an agreement with the province on reduced-service levels and the moves will go some way to stop the hemorrhaging from B.C. Ferries coffers.

With traffic down by close to 80 per cent across its network, B.C. Ferries estimates it is losing between $1.25 million and $1.5 million each day.

“We can’t keep that up if we are ever going to have a ferry company to come back to when this is all over,” said Collins.

B.C. Ferries will have to review plans to invest in terminal upgrades and new vessels.

“We have an ambitious program to reinvest in the ferry service and this will change everything. We are re-evaluating all capital commitments.”

Collins said that will include everything but the five vessels that are under construction. “We can’t continue to needlessly absorb $1.5 million losses without a purpose,” he said. “We want to protect our people and stop the losses to have a robust and resilient ferry system when all this is over.”

Collins said the cuts will not offset all financial losses, and the corporation will still be under pressure so they will look at accessing some of the relief programs provided by governments.

“At the end of the day, we will still be taking a loss, but we have to accept that because it’s important cargo capacity be maintained,” he said.

B.C. Ferries estimates it carries as much as 70 per cent of all cargo destined for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

The changes include:

• suspension of the Mill Bay ferry and the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo route

• reducing the major routes (Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen to Duke Point) to four round trips a day from the current eight

• four additional cargo-only round trips between Tsawwassen and Duke Point

• service on the Langdale to Horseshoe Bay route will be reduced to six round trips a day from the present eight.

Service on the northern and mid-coast ferry routes will continue to operate at current levels, and the summer direct service from Bella Coola to Port Hardy will not be introduced.

Changes to routes between Tsawwassen, the southern Gulf Islands and Swartz Bay have yet to be finalized.

Collins said the decision to cut the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo route was made because it represents the least amount of cargo carried between the mainland and the Island.

As for the decision to cut the Mill Bay ferry, he said that was due to minimal ridership and having the viable alternative of the highway system.

“It’s an opportunity to rest our crew and protect our crew,” he said, noting that is driving many of the decisions to cut back service as workers are exposed even when traffic is very light.

“If a member of a crew gets sick, we lose the whole crew.”

Employees were informed Friday morning of the cuts and service changes, and the union representing ferry workers has been anticipating the service cuts.

In an online post on Thursday, B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers president Graeme Johnston said service reductions were looming and the union was recommending casual workers apply for the financial support being offered by the federal government as soon as possible.

But the scope of Friday’s announcement still seemed to take the union by surprise. It said in a statement that it was “blindsided.”

“A sudden layoff without notice and other provisions of severance laid out in their collective agreements would be devastating to these workers and their families,” Johnston said in a statement.

“We call on B.C. Ferries to honour the collective agreement while they adjust to service reductions.”

The union said all employees must receive notice of layoff and an option of severance pay.

“We expected a workforce adjustment given the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the spirit of ‘getting through this together,’ we expected more from B.C. Ferries,” said Johnston. “These workers and their families deserve better.”

The union said it would be prepared to take legal action to protect workers laid off despite a 75 per cent wage subsidy being made available by the federal government to prevent that kind of action.

“In our opinion, the proposed layoffs would constitute a breach of Article 12 of the collective agreement and expose B.C. Ferries to significant liability for damages payable to its laid-off employees,” union legal counsel John Rogers said in a statement.

The changes B.C. Ferries announced will be implemented starting today and will last for 60 days. Collins said an amendment to the Coastal Ferry Services Contract signed this week with the province allows for a further reduction of eight per cent, which could mean some impact on cargo transport.

Any further reduction in service beyond that would require another amendment to the contract.

B.C. Ferries said it will monitor service levels to ensure essential service levels are maintained and to determine when services should resume to normal.

For schedules and information about travelling with B.C. Ferries during the COVID-19 situation, visit bcferries.com.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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