Forty per cent of all the sailings that B.C. Ferries cancelled in its 2023 fiscal year were due to crew shortages, according to a report released at B.C. Ferries' annual general meeting.
That's 1,163 sailings cancelled due to staffing challenges — more than double the number cancelled for the same reason in the 2022 fiscal year.
CEO Nicolas Jimenez told the AGM that B.C. Ferries carried more people in the 2023 fiscal year than in any previous year. Despite the seemingly large number of sailing cancellations, he said it represented just 1.6 per cent of the 177,582 sailings that year.
Eric McNeely, the provincial president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union, says it's a problem that needs a solution sooner rather than later.
"We feel it as members — there has been more and more sailings disrupted by a lack of staff," he said. "I think that's fundamentally because of the challenge of recruiting and retaining people hasn't been adequately addressed by [B.C. Ferries] over the past few years."
Jimenez acknowledged the recent "moments of challenge" experienced by B.C. Ferries, such as issues passengers have faced with long wait times and cancellations, which have left passengers frustrated.
"That moment of challenge, for a small number of customers, has a very big impact," Jimenez said.
"We will constantly look to win back the trust of those customers who had to experience something that was completely out of their control and in some ways out of our control."
B.C. Ferries did not respond to requests to comment on this story.
Jimenez says that staffing challenges in 2022 led the corporation to take new measures to recruit marine workers.
"We recognized we needed a different approach in terms of how we have begun to look at hiring," he said in a speech to the AGM.
As a result, he says B.C. Ferries enhanced its employee referral program, invested in staff training, and changed the job classification for seasonal workers to casual workers.
According to the B.C. Ferries website's description of casual workers, they are required to be on-call for assignments that are "frequently given with short notice," with no guarantee of minimum hours.
While this job classification has higher pay and more rights under the collective agreement than seasonal workers, McNeely says the move hasn't done much to improve stability.
"Changing someone's title from a seasonal to a causal hasn't addressed what I think the core problem is, which is their crewing model and crewing process," he said.
B.C. Ferries CEO Nicolas Jimenez, B.C. Ferry Authority chair Lecia Stewart, B.C. Ferry Services chair Joy MacPhail and CFO Jill Sharland at the B.C. Ferries AGM on Aug. 24, 2023. (Michael Macarthur/CBC News)
McNeely says ferry workers struggle to make a liveable wage. In a survey conducted this summer by the union, more than half its members reported taking second jobs. He also says many staff are struggling with burnout from working overtime due to a lack of relief workers.
Earlier this year, B.C. Ferries announced a staff recruitment effort it said was its largest to date and sought out marine workers through hiring fairs. That same month, a report submitted to the B.C. Ferries commissioner showed ferry employee turnover had increased 52 per cent over the last two years.
At the time, a spokesperson for B.C.Ferries said one of the challenges it faced in staffing was an aging demographic in workers, some of whom were nearing retirement. The corporation also allowed unvaccinated workers to return to work in June 2022.
Although cancellations make up a small number of overall sailings, locals say they can have a significant impact on communities that depend on the ferries to access essential services.
Diana Mumford, the chair of the ferry advisory council for the Southern Sunshine Coast, where community members rely on ferries to travel to the rest of the province, says local residents are tired of recurrent performance and capacity issues that can prevent them from taking ferries when they need them.
"For us, it's a road. It's not a trip on a holiday," she said. "It's a road to get to our doctor's appointment, to see family."
Last year, she said her community faced the same challenges — and looked to B.C. Ferries for assistance. But the issues persisted.
"How many more years will we be called a hot spot route without any relief from it?" she said.
B.C. Ferries said in response to concerns raised at the AGM by Mumford and other ferry advisory council members from coastal communities that they will take these issues into consideration.
Over the next nine months, B.C. Ferries said it will develop a long-term strategy to overcome the current challenges and better meet the needs of coastal communities. Consultation is set to begin this fall with a full plan.
B.C. Ferries said it will begin consulting with communities and stakeholders, wiith the full plan scheduled to roll out next spring.
However, McNeely worries this may come too late to change much for next summer. He says B.C. Ferries decides its budgeting and financing for the next year now.
"We heard a similar thing last year, 'Bear with us. This is a one-off year.' We're kind of hearing a 'Bear with us. We'll get through it,' again," he said.
"If you do your planning after you've done your budgeting, you have some constraints that may not be easy to change."