The president of the union representing BC Ferries workers says the company’s comments that employee absenteeism led to a handful of service cancellations over the weekend are a “slap in the face.”
Several Sunday afternoon and evening sailings were cancelled to and from Salt Spring Island, prompting BC Ferries to call in a water taxi to shuttle some travellers off the island and leaving other passengers stuck waiting with their vehicles.
BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said while the company has hired enough workers to return to normal service levels, COVID-19 and other factors are hitting the workforce hard and there is an 11 per cent rate of absenteeism compared to the regular five or six per cent.
“We might have 4 or 500 employees unavailable to come into work at any given time right now and that is causing us difficulties on occasion,” she said.
On Wednesday, McNeely responded to those comments saying that he felt they were misleading.
“Blaming the workers that have been coming in on overtime on their days of rest, now blaming them for the system not working, I think, is putting the blame on the wrong people,” he said.
While McNeely didn’t dispute that many workers were ill with COVID-19, he said the company should be planning ahead for new waves of the pandemic.
“It’s hard to tell which numbers they’re using to get to those, but if you have an organization with more than 5,000 employees and you can’t handle some absenteeism, then I think that’s a different issue around staffing levels and suggests maybe the staffing levels aren’t where they should be,” he said.
Transport Canada’s current policy regarding COVID-19 illness in ferry workers is the same as the guidance for all British Columbians — to isolate at home for five days and until their symptoms improve and they no longer have a fever.
“You certainly don’t want to infect the whole crew and we have seen instances in the past where that has occurred, so people are being told to stay at home if they’re feeling unwell but then being blamed for ships not sailing,” said McNeely.
McNeely said the union will be having “further discussions” with BC Ferries about what worker protections might look like in a seventh wave.
“We’re looking at what’s the best way to protect the work force, and whether or not there will be an equitable level of care for crew who work with large numbers of the population,” he said. “So is it just an employee requirement, or would it be a travelling requirement? And I think those are still discussions that are in their infancy.”
In a response, BC Ferries once again apologized to passengers affected by Sunday’s cancellations.
“Out of great concern, we are fully investigating this incident to understand the abnormally high level of employee absences and last minute book-offs on these specific routes,” said spokesperson Deborah Marshall.
She added that on a typical weekend on the affected routes, the company sees around 15 book-offs, but last weekend had 56.
“Even at typical staffing levels there are not enough on-call positions able to cover that level of unprecedented absenteeism which is why sailing cancellations were the only option available,” she said.
Marshall reiterated that of the company’s approximately 5,000 current employees — a gain of around 200 workers pre-pandemic in 2019 — absenteeism has jumped from a usual rate of about six per cent to 11 per cent, the equivalent of around 400-500 employees.
Ferry workers’ union representatives will meet with BC Ferries at the company’s Annual General Meeting next month to address issues including staff training and retention.