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Workers claim B.C. Ferries puts bottom line ahead of safety

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B.C. Ferries' Swartz Bay Terminal in Victoria. File photo

B.C. Ferries is putting its financial well-being ahead of the health and safety of employees and the travelling public, according to some veteran employees.

Long-term B.C. Ferries’ employees, who work on the busiest routes in the system, said they are stressed out, worn down and concerned about their health and that of the public. Workers who were interviewed asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisal from the company.

“In my, and most of my co-workers’ opinions, safety is not driving B.C. Ferries right now, the bottom line is driving B.C. Ferries,” said one worker with more than 25 years of experience.

All of the employees said there is not enough staff to handle additional cleaning duties required during the COVID-19 pandemic and a travelling public that too often pays little or no attention to safety guidelines such as wearing masks and social-distancing.

They said they have been told B.C. Ferries will not bring on more staff because it does not have the money.

As a result of the pandemic and a massive drop in demand, B.C. Ferries posted a loss of $62 million in the first quarter of this year, which ended June 30.

In its first-quarter results released Thursday, B.C. Ferries said revenue for the quarter dropped by $109 million to $137.4 million as a result of traffic demand falling off by as much as 80 per cent early in the pandemic.

B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said crew levels are set by Transport Canada to ensure vessels have sufficient staff for the number of passengers on board.

“In some cases we are sailing with additional staff,” she said. “I can appreciate that some staff may be fearful. Many people in society are feeling fearful given the pandemic. The pandemic has increased stress levels in many of us.”

Marshall said the company has taken strides to protect staff and the public, noting it announced this week that face coverings would be mandatory on all sailings, and cleaning routines have been “stepped up” since the pandemic started. “If any of our crew have concerns, we ask them to raise it with their supervisor or management,” Marshall said. “We are all in this together and commend the job our front-line staff do each and every day.”

But the employees were adamant more workers are needed. “We need more bodies even if just to monitor people and have them stop roaming all over the boat,” said a worker on the Departure Bay-Horseshoe Bay route.

The employees expressed frustration at not being able to do much about people not following social-distancing guidelines or wearing masks. Until this week, ferry passengers had to carry a mask with them, but were not required to wear one unless they were unable to social distance. That policy changed as B.C. Ferries announced Thursday that, as of next week, passengers will be required to wear face masks at all times while aboard vessels or inside terminals.

“We keep getting it jammed down our throats that we can’t enforce [the rules], we can only suggest to people,” one worker said.

“To me, it looks like it was before the pandemic. Things are willy-nilly, there is no social-distancing and no one policing anything. Basically, nothing has changed. We have less passengers, but those passengers are not being required to follow the rules I see being enforced in other businesses.”

All of the workers interviewed said they see grocery stores and restaurants enforcing rules and offering extensive plexiglass protective equipment, but there’s nothing like that on the vessels.

“You can really see it when the boat is about to dock,” said one worker, noting while foot passengers are told to remain seated to ensure physical distancing as they disembark, there is instead a mass grouping of people queuing to get off. “And no one polices that.”

Since B.C. Ferries opened up services such as gift shops and cafeterias and ferry traffic picked up, the workers said, catering staff have been unable to maintain the rigorous cleaning practices they employed early in the pandemic.

“We ramped up cleaning until the cafeterias opened up, now cleaning has dropped off. Now, it may get done once in a shift maybe twice, and instead of cleaning the entire chair we will only clean the arm rests,” said one worker.

Another said: “I find it completely stressful. It’s so stressful, but I don’t have any choice.” The worker said they need the job to support their family.

A worker on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, who has been with the company for more than 25 years, said employees have been frustrated by a lack of clarity and direction from head office, as well as the inability for employees to enforce rules.

“It's tough with the public, the ones that don’t want to oblige and wear a mask when they can’t social distance,” the worker said, adding they regularly deal with incidents of passengers reacting poorly to other passengers not following safety guidelines.

“It’s really wearing on the crew because we are constantly dealing with these kinds of issues. People are getting tired, they are on edge.”

The worker said cleaning standards have slipped. “We just can’t keep up,” the worker said. “We’d like to see more people on the ship to monitor these things. We’ve seen it at other businesses who have had to hire more people—we seem to have gone the other way.”

Graeme Johnston, president of the B.C. Ferries and Marine Workers Union, said the workers’ concerns seem to be universal through the membership. He said there have been multiple alerts raised internally at B.C. Ferries about staffing levels.

“People are saying the workload related to cleaning on top of all other duties is just overwhelming,” he said.

“If our members believe the work they are being asked to do is unsafe, then we would tell them to refuse to do the work.

“We saw that happen during the upswing of the pandemic and I would day it is a very real possibility as we see another upswing of it now.

“Whether that results in a service interruption or not will depend on the response of the employer. But it is a real possibility.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com



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