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Toronto’s transit agency announced Thursday it would lay off as many as 1,000 drivers as it grapples with plunging revenue caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Toronto Transit Commission, which carries more passengers than any other in the country, has seen 85 per cent of its ridership disappear. The loss of those passengers has wreaked financial havoc on the agency, which relies heavily on the fare box to fund operations.

Over the course of the pandemic, the agency has sought to preserve as much service as possible, on the premise that essential workers need to get around. And until Thursday, it had not said it would lay off employees. But the agency now says it can no longer sustain losses of about $90-million a month.

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The layoffs of up to 1,000 operators – the industry term for a driver – will be spread across the agency, with job losses expected on the subway, bus, streetcar and Wheel-Trans divisions. This scale of losses would represent about one-seventh of the total number of operators at the agency.

On top of these unionized staff, 200 non-union employees will be cut and the agency will also delay non-essential capital projects, pause salary increases and reduce overtime. There will be no cuts to fare inspectors or transit security officers, which the agency says are now acting in a necessary customer service role.

TTC chief executive officer Rick Leary called the cuts “not an easy decision” and said the agency would take care of laid-off employees “as best we can during this difficult time.”

“I look forward to everyone returning to the TTC once ridership has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels," he said in a statement.

Carlos Santos, president of ATU Local 113, which includes most unionized TTC employees, said in a message to his members that higher levels of government need to step in with emergency funding for the TTC. He criticized the agency for announcing the layoffs.

“This is the ‘thank you’ our members get for sacrificing themselves day in and day out, for putting their families and themselves at risk,” he said. “Almost 30 of you have tested positive for COVID-19. You deserve better than today’s announcement."

The TTC’s cost-cutting measures were announced the same day the Federation of Canadian Municipalities formally asked Ottawa for at least $10-billion in emergency funding for the country’s cities. About one-quarter of that total would be dedicated to transit and would be allocated on the basis of ridership, meaning that the bulk of it would go to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, in separate press conferences, said Thursday that the federal government recognized the challenges cities were facing during this pandemic. Neither committed to any specific assistance.

Provincial NDP transit critic Jessica Bell called on Queen’s Park to offer funding to the TTC, warning that failing to do so could threaten the service the agency provides and sanitation standards necessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

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