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One of two new ferries to Gabriola Island sidelined Thursday due to staff shortages

It's not known how long the staffing uncertainty will persist.
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The Island Gwawis did not operate Thursday, resulting in the cancellation of 18 sailings, although the Island Kwigwis, which shares the Nanaimo-Gabriola run, continued operating. B.C. Ferries

Eighteen sailings between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island were cancelled Thursday because of ongoing B.C. Ferries crew shortages.

The Island Gwawis did not operate Thursday, resulting in the cancellations. The Island Kwigwis, which shares the Nanaimo-Gabriola run, continued operating.

Cancellations due to crew shortages have hit sailings throughout the fleet for several months.

On Sunday, B.C. Ferries hired a 45-person water taxi to fill in for cancelled service to Salt Spring Island. A B.C. Ferries official said absenteeism — currently more than double the typical five per cent, in part because of COVID-19 — was responsible for the Sunday cancellation.

How long the situation will persist is unknown.

Brian Cant, spokesman for Tourism Vancouver Island, said his group is encouraging visitors to check B.C. Ferries’ announcements on Twitter as well as its website, bcferries.com, for possible cancellations.

This year, the ferry corporation has hired hundreds of workers, many at entry level, and offered cash incentives to join or re-join the fleet, as well as bolstering its internal hiring team.

Incentives include $350 for new seasonal workers and $500 for returning seasonal workers, as well as a guarantee of 420 hours of work between mid-May and the Labour Day long weekend, B.C. Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said.

Employees who successfully refer a candidate for a desired positions could receive up to $10,000. B.C. Ferries is seeking staff for deck positions with a watchkeeping mate certificate or higher and engineering positions with a fourth class motor certificate or higher.

B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union president Eric McNeely said members have been going to work throughout the pandemic, working overtime to keep the system running, and hearing absenteeism blamed for cancellations “really stings.”

If B.C. Ferries had more workers, members would not be called in on overtime on their days off or on planned vacation time, he said. “They wouldn’t be getting overtired and in some cases they wouldn’t be getting sick because they are fatigued.”

Although B.C. Ferries has taken some steps to add numbers, what has been missed is a retention program for those workers already on the job, McNeely said.

At the same time, he has heard from members who are on call saying they are finding it difficult to cover rent and pay bills.

With increases to B.C.’s minimum wage that have prompted many employers to boost wages to lure workers, there is additional competition for entry-level positions, McNeely said. “Does a worker want to be on a ship away from home for $1 or $2 an hour more?”

B.C. Ferries workers’ pay and benefits are set out in a contract that comes up for renewal in 2025.

The company asked the union in January for recommendations to improve recruitment and retention, McNeely said, adding the union responded with suggested compensation changes but was told they were too expensive.

Meanwhile, about 150 employees had been put on leave without pay when they failed to comply with a federal requirement they be vaccinated against COVID, but are now permitted to return to work, which about two-thirds have done, McNeely said.

Michael Richards, who worked in food services for B.C. Ferries, is among those who were off work because he did not get vaccinated, and received a termination letter this week from B.C. Ferries. He has not returned to work — he said he told B.C. Ferries he wanted to remain but is worried about how colleagues would react to his return, as well as how the time off will affect his pension.

The union has filed grievances and has arbitration dates relating to issues for members put on leave without pay.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com