Staff absenteeism has doubled, BC Ferries says after weekend disruptions

Click to play video: 'Southern Gulf Island ferry service returns to normal after chaotic weekend'
Southern Gulf Island ferry service returns to normal after chaotic weekend
Either by air or sea, the summer of travel frustrations continues. BC Ferries is back to full staffing - but the number of workers calling in sick has doubled. And as Kylie Stanton shows us, that left more routes cancelled over the weekend and travellers stranded – Jul 18, 2022

Employee absenteeism has more than doubled at BC Ferries, contributing to some recent service cancellations and delays, according to the company.

Absenteeism normally hovers around five or six per cent but is currently 11 per cent, its executive director of public affairs told Global News on Monday.

“We have had cancellations less than one per cent, but we know if that was the sailing you were trying to catch, it’s obviously very inconvenient,” said Deborah Marshall.

“It’s not a matter of not having enough staff on-hand, it’s crew availability. It’s people calling in sick so that is causing us challenges.”

On Saturday, BC Ferries cancelled 14 sailings on the Island Kwigwis, Island Gwawis and Salish Eagle, affecting the Gabriola, Nanaimo Harbour, Long Harbour, and Tsawwassen terminals.

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The next day, it cancelled another eight sailings on the Skeena Queen ferry between Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbour. Both days, it cited “crew availability” as an obstacle.

BC Ferries arranged a water taxi to take up to 45 passengers at a time between Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbour on its regular schedule on Sunday, but some passengers who needed to travel with their vehicles ended up stuck.

“We certainly apologize to our customers for the inconvenience caused by sailing cancellations yesterday,” Marshall wrote on Monday morning. “We will let our customers know as soon as we can if there are any further service interruptions caused by availability of crew.”

On Monday, BC Ferries suspended baggage service for three sailings each from Langdale and Horseshoe Bay due to “crewing availability” issues. It was, however, able to resolve a number of staffing challenges on the Salish Eagle that had put several sailings at risk of cancellation.

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Since January, the company has hired about 1,000 new staffers. It has also recalled about two-thirds of the 150 people who were put on leave without pay due to vaccine mandates, said Marshall.

In late March, BC Ferries confirmed it was facing a labour shortage because of “higher than expected retirements in key shipboard positions,” the effects of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and challenges recruiting internationally due to the pandemic.

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Last month, it told Global News it was offering a range of bonuses to incentivize new, current and former employees, with several conditions. Between $5,000 and $10,000 was available for referrals, new hires, returning ex-employees, and those who delay their retirement, if they hold certain in-demand certifications, it said.

Click to play video: 'BC Ferries warns of more summer service disruptions'
BC Ferries warns of more summer service disruptions

In an interview, Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce president Daryll Martin expressed concerns with the “disruptive” weekend of cancellations, but said the local accommodation sector “did a lot” to support the affected visitors.

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“However, the greatest disruption was for the residents, who generally do their shopping and visiting of relatives and so on,” he explained.

“For the long-term, it’s really important to us at the chamber and in the accommodation industry that there be some certainty going forward about how you can get to Salt Spring and get back.”

Martin said he has been in touch with BC Ferries over several months, and was aware COVID-19 had impacted the company’s service capacity. He’s pleased BC Ferries has brought in the one-time hiring incentives to address some of the key shortages in employment, he added.

“I’ve been living here for nine years now and I’ve never seen anything like this ever before,” he said. “I’m confident this is a one-time event that just happened to hit all at one time, and I’m very optimistic this will be the one and only time it will be this disruptive.”

Marshall said summer travellers, meanwhile, are advised to check the BC Ferries website regularly before travel and follow the company on Twitter to ensure they’re up to speed on service changes.

With files from Darrian Matassa-Fung 

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