Skip to main content

A boat heads to Duke Point from the B.C. Ferries terminal as new non-essential travel restrictions between provincial health authority regions were announced, in order to help limit the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Jennifer GauthierJENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

Diana Mumford has lived on the Sunshine Coast for nine years, relying on a ferry weekly to see her grandchildren in Vancouver or for other routine errands in the city.

But this year, Ms. Mumford is avoiding some trips, especially as the summer tourist season heats up. BC Ferries – viewed by her and other users as an extension of the province’s highway system – is now being regarded as unreliable because of cancelled or delayed sailings and confusing communication.

The situation at the ferry service, which moves 60,000 customers and 23,000 vehicles throughout the province’s coast every day, is similar to the chaos that has gripped Canadian airports – where staffing shortages snarl security lines and airlines cancel flights, leaving travellers scrambling. BC Ferries has said the lack of crew in the fall and winter is expected to persist into the summer. Sailings have been cancelled, including several trips between the two largest ports – Greater Victoria and the Lower Mainland.

Ms. Mumford, who is also the chair of Southern Sunshine Coast Ferry Advisory Committee, said that although her own trips have yet to be affected by recent cancellations, “the hardest part is the uncertainty.”

“People have made medical appointments or reasons for going into the city and suddenly, you can’t get there. … They’ll say it’s cancelled and then they’ll find staff and then the sailings aren’t cancelled, but people’s reservations are cancelled, and so it’s very challenging for everybody,” she said.

BC Ferries would usually gear up in the summer with extra sailings. But the president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union said that might not be the case this year.

“Crew levels are lower than they had been in the past,” Eric McNeely said. “So there may have been two people in the past on a position; now, there’s only one. And if that one person is unable to come to work for any reason, that may disrupt a sailing.”

Deborah Marshall, a spokesperson for BC Ferries, said the company has been seeing higher-than-usual absenteeism, which has been caused by a combination of factors, including people calling in sick, booking vacation or declining requests to work overtime.

She said the ferry service has recently recruited approximately 850 employees and is asking 150 employees, who have been on leave because of the now-suspended federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate, about their intentions to return.

On Monday, Transport Canada lifted vaccination requirements for domestic and outbound travel, federally regulated transportation sectors and federal government employees. The federal department also lifted an interim order that required vessel-based workers who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate for 10 days. Now BC Ferries will only need to follow provincial guidelines – five days of isolation for fully-vaccinated individuals and 10 days for those who aren’t until their symptoms improve.

But even with the addition of all these employees, Mr. McNeely doubts the scheduling for the vessels will reach prepandemic levels soon.

“There’s quite a bit of burnout right now because the crew levels are so low. People are coming in on overtime to try and keep the ferries moving,” he said.

“Even on the smaller islands, we’re seeing hours and hours of delays. … And we’re concerned that that’s going to continue into the summer in a way that we haven’t experienced before.”

That concern has been shared by the ferry advisory committee, according to Ms. Mumford.

Ms. Marshall did not confirm whether there will be fewer sailings in the summer, but said there may be occasions where a sailing is cancelled owing to availability of crew. She added that the ferry service would inform customers as quickly as possible in such circumstances.

On the issue of crew shortages, Ms. Marshall said the company is continuing to recruit for a variety of positions across the fleet, but deck officers and engineers are the two areas in greatest demand.

BC Ferries has also offered recruiting incentives to attract more workers. Every employee in the company is eligible for up to $10,000 if they refer a new employee to the company under the terms of the policy, Ms. Marshall said.

Mr. McNeely acknowledged the ferry operator’s recent efforts to recruit staff, but said many of those new hires are in entry-level positions. He added that with an aging demographic, the company should also pay attention to retention.

He said the union projects there will be more than 900 retirement-ready workers in the next five years, and recommended that the ferry service invest in wages and in training and education.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.