Ferry workers leaving a vessel following a shift change. (News Bulletin file photo)

Workers, including ferry staff, appreciated on Labour Day

Pandemic layoffs, abuse from riders hard on workers

COVID-19 has affected every industry, including B.C. Ferries, for the past year and a half and Labour Day will offer an opportunity for people to ponder the importance of workers.

Eric McNeely, B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union president, said his membership had to deal with numerous issues during the pandemic, including feeling the brunt of customer anger, despite not being the ones who established the regulations.

Concerns and frustrations picked up when restrictions were stepped up in the late fall-early winter and also this past spring.

“People would roll on through the terminal, there wasn’t a huge amount of challenges at the terminal about wearing masks and whatnot, but once people got on the ship, they would take their mask off and claim they had some sort of right not to wear their mask,” said McNeely.

He said workers were abused “quite a bit” during those disputes until some higher-profile incidents resulted in police being called out.

“It seemed that once there was indication from authorities, be it police or Transport Canada, that the masking requirements were going to be enforced, there was again a reduction of abuse to employees,” he said.

Travelling restrictions were put in place due to the pandemic, and that impacted employment, according to McNeely.

“If you roll back to March last year, I think everyone was quite scared generally,” he said. “A lot of people were concerned, there wasn’t a lot of information.”

There were “significant” layoffs in the weeks after the pandemic began, roughly 1,400, McNeely said, and though the layoffs were later “determined to be inappropriate” and reversed, there were nervous times for workers.

“Not only were they concerned about this COVID thing, they were now concerned about their ability to pay their bills and … the stability of the workforce in general. People who had been here 32 years were laid off,” the union president said.

Deborah Marshall, B.C. Ferries spokesperson, told the News Bulletin that B.C. Ferries is in the midst of a hiring campaign to build its workforce up. The company has seen staffing shortages affect sailings recently. Some have come about due to retirement, she said, and there are fewer people going into the marine industry.

It has been “a challenge trying to backfill them,” according to Marshall.

“We have had some uptake, but we’re an aging workforce and we are seeing lots of retirements, so that’s compounding the situation,” said Marshall.

McNeely said better wages could lead to more applicants.

“I would suggest that, while there may be a shortage of qualified mariners worldwide, other organizations on this coast aren’t having an issue with that shortage,” said McNeely. “Seaspan, Lafarge, they’re not having issues we’re having because … they have a good quality life-work balance option. They’re basically a day-for-day program and then wages. A lot of people leave ferries because of the wages or because of the work-to-life balance.”

Labour Day weekend tends to keep ferry workers busy, as it’s a popular travel weekend each year. The longest ferry waits tend to be Thursday and Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings on the mainland and Sunday and Monday from Vancouver Island.

B.C. Ferries asked in a press release that travellers respect their fellow passengers and crew.

“High traffic volumes can be stressful for both customers and employees,” the release noted. “B.C. Ferries has a zero tolerance policy for abuse, including verbal abuse, towards employees. Our employees are professionals doing their best to meet everyone’s needs.”

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A ferry captain on the bridge. B.C. Ferries workers have faced uncertainty but have kept transportation to and from Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast moving during the pandemic. (News Bulletin file photo)