Staffing crunch looms large as BC Ferries gears up for busy Easter weekend
Travellers are being warned to book ahead and prepare for possible delays as BC Ferries heads into Easter – one of the busiest long weekends of the year and typically the start of the summer travel season.
The company says it has added extra sailings on the Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay route starting Thursday and its Horseshoe Bay routes on Friday, but an ongoing staffing crunch due to COVID-19 could still cause problems.
“While we are planning a full suite of extra sailings on the weekend, we have seen some occasions, isolated incidents over the past month or so where we have had to cancel service on short notice due to crew illness, and what we are finding right now, with the new variant, we are starting to see an increase in illness again,” BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said.
The company has previously warned about the impact of ongoing staff shortages, citing retirements, COVID-19 vaccine mandates and challenges recruiting internationally.
Federal minimum crew requirements mean that if BC Ferries is unable to staff some shifts it can not sail, and Marshall said the company’s pool of backup staff is smaller than it used to be.
BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union president Eric McNeely said retirements remain a key problem, but argued recruitment efforts are being hampered by a pay gap with other employers in the marine sector.
Crew members in critical deck and engineering roles can make between $20,000 to $30,000 more with some other marine operators, he claimed, while those in the catering and service positions also have other opportunities.
“Instead of driving an hour, two hours to Tsawwassen, they could take a job at Starbucks at Lougheed and they’d actually be making slightly more per hour and they wouldn’t have to drive and they wouldn’t be at a workplace that could be five hours away from home,” he said.
BC Ferries says it is in the midst of a major recruiting drive and is working on bringing back retired employees.
Marshall said the company believes its pay packages and pension are competitive, and that employees benefit from being able to go home at night, unlike in other marine sectors where voyages can last days or weeks.
“BC Ferries isn’t alone in that, there’s worldwide crew shortages,” said Phillip Nelson, president of the Council of Marine Carriers.
“Every aspect of the industry is suffering from this problem.”
Nelson said a huge cadre of baby boomers in the marine industry are nearing retirement, potentially leaving “critical gaps” in a sector he said contributes more to the province’s economy than agriculture.
He said the province and federal government need to step in to help with training and recruitment.
In the meantime, long weekend travellers are being advised to reserve their ferry passage if they can, to travel during off-peak times when possible, and to ensure they check the BC Ferries website before they head to the terminal.
The union is also urging travellers to be patient.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult summer. I think it’s going to be one of the busiest summers in a long time as things seem to be opening back up,” McNeely said.
“Patience with everyone, especially the workers, because the workers that are staying, we don’t want them to be mistreated and go someone else, and then there’s more disruptions.”
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