B.C. Ferries reducing service to Southern Gulf Islands

One ferry route to Salt Spring Island will be cancelled while service to the rest of the Southern Gulf Islands will be streamlined starting this weekend, as B.C. Ferries further reduces service amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. Ferries said the cuts are designed to better match service with demand and to protect workers and island communities.

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Late last week, when it announced it was laying off as many as 1,400 workers and significantly reducing service levels, B.C. Ferries said some minor routes would be suspended and the frequency of service on major routes would be cut in half, as the company attempts to deal with the economic impact of massive reductions in traffic.

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

The latest changes come into effect on Saturday and run for 60 days. Service to the Southern Gulf Islands will accommodate the movement of essential goods to the islands and limited inter-island travel.

As of April 10, the Salish Raven — based out of Swartz Bay — will travel back and forth between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay, and make stops during that crossing at Pender, Mayne and Galiano islands.

Customers with reservations on cancelled sailings on the Tsawwassen-Southern Gulf Islands route will be automatically refunded. The revised schedule will be available for booking reservations shortly.

B.C. Ferries will also run the Queen of Cumberland between Swartz Bay and Saturna, Mayne, Galiano and Pender islands.

Service to Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island will be suspended, and Salt Spring Island will be served by its two other routes, Swartz Bay to Fulford Harbour and Crofton to Vesuvius.

A newly formed group representing farm and business owners on Salt Spring, called the Business and Farm Response & Recovery Task Force, has launched a kind of anti-tourism campaign, telling people: If you love the island, stay home.

“In normal times, visitors are really important to our local economy and culture,” said Jessica Harkema, executive director of Salt Spring’s Chamber of Commerce. “These are not normal times. Our priority now is serving our community. Island organizations are working hard to make sure our residents have the food and critical resources to be safe. For now, everyone please stay home.”

The island’s Lady Minto Hospital has told residents to tell their friends and family not to visit, and to celebrate the Easter long weekend with off-island loved ones virtually, as the small island hospital is not equipped to deal with an influx of patients.

The island has also stressed that ferry capacity has been reduced, floatplane trips are cancelled, the majority of its businesses are temporarily closed and provincial parks and other attractions are closed, leaving visitors with few amenities.

B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union president Graeme Johnston doesn’t take issue with the change in service levels or the need for a reduced workforce, but after news broke Wednesday of the further reduction in service, he reiterated his concern that members were laid off without the notice or option of severance pay required by their collective agreement.

“We’re obviously still concerned our members are still being illegally laid off and we’re not being given a lot of information about what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “There’s been no constructive dialogue with B.C. Ferries about how to bring back fairness and dignity to our membership after they have thrown away the collective agreement.”

The union has filed a grievance against B.C. Ferries and an unfair labour practices complaint at the Labour Relations Board. Johnston said they are hoping that complaint will be heard this week.

Asked about the layoffs, Deborah Marshall, executive director of public affairs, wrote in an email last week that the company is committed to approaching the temporary layoffs “with the utmost consideration and sensitivity to all B.C. Ferries employees who are impacted.”

“We need all these skilled people back as soon as possible to help restore ferry services when traffic returns,” she said.

B.C. Ferries continues to advise customers to avoid non-essential travel, including during the upcoming Easter long weekend.

For those who need to travel, additional measures have been put in place on board vessels and at terminals to keep customers and crew healthy and safe.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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