BC Ferries had barely finished explaining Tuesday what went wrong during the disastrous Canada Day long weekend, when it was hit with a new round of questions: What can be done to prevent the same miserable customer experience of long lines and multi-sailing delays from repeating in roughly a month during the even-busier B.C. Day long weekend?
The answer: Pretty much nothing.
Customers are in for enormous waits, frustrations and headaches no matter what actions are taken by the provincial government or BC Ferries over the next month, all sides now admit.
“What we saw this weekend was unacceptable,” said Transportation Minister Rob Fleming. “We have to do better. I said that before the long weekend. We will do better.”
Just not any time soon.
The problems are too big to solve in the short-term, admits everyone in and around BC Ferries. It will take many months, if not years, to build more ships, streamline ticketing and hire enough people to solve a serious staffing shortage. This summer is essentially a write-off for any real, tangible, improvements.
Fleming had little to offer in terms of a path forward for BC Ferries. He sidestepped questions about whether the BC NDP government would consider increasing the annual ferry operating subsidy to make wages more competitive with other marine companies.
For actual solutions, he punted everything back to CEO Nicolas Jimenez.
“We have to respect the company’s independence,” said Fleming.
Jimenez urged patience.
“This is just the circumstance of the business today that we need to fix, and that fix will happen, but it's not a fix that we can make happen overnight,” he said. “It's going to take time for us to rebuild our training programs, to rebuild our compensation models, to rebuild our recruitment models. And that fix does not happen in a week or a month, it happens over a longer timeframe.”
There is every reason to believe Jimenez is up to the job. He’s wrestled down more complex, expensive and thorny questions at ICBC during his tenure as CEO.
But he’ll need to have a willing partner in the provincial government to do some heavy financial lifting.
BC Ferries and its union are about to reopen wage negotiations, two years before the collective agreement expires, to try and address the recruitment and retention crisis. It will be expensive, but necessary, to increase pay. Fleming, inexplicably, wouldn’t commit to provincial financial help Tuesday.
BC Ferries is a victim of its own success on collective bargaining with its employees — it managed to grind the union down to no wage increase in 2021, two per cent in 2022 and two per cent in 2023. That’s downright miserly, during a time of record inflation.
So perhaps it’s no surprise BC Ferries staff have been quitting to take other jobs, or retiring, by the hundreds. It’s even getting outclassed by the new private Nanaimo passenger ferry service, Hullo, which poached five BC Ferries crew recently by offering higher wages.
Meanwhile, the federal maritime guild secured a 13.5 per cent wage increase plus a two per cent bonus last year for its workers. Seaspan pays 25 per cent more for a deckhand working the same job at BC Ferries. Other companies in the Pacific Northwest pay between 18 to 40 per cent more than BC Ferries, estimates the BC Ferry & Marine Workers’ Union.
The chaos during the Canada Day long weekend was partly due to the fact the Coastal Celebration vessel was stuck in repairs, leaving the busy Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen route a ship down. That ferry is back in the water as of Tuesday. But whether BC Ferries will have enough staff to run it on the BC Day long weekend — it’s busiest time of the year — remains an open question.
“We're still going to have the same challenges we've been talking about for the last number of months, which is our resilience for relief crews is thin,” said Jimenez.
“So if we have circumstances where people can't come to work because of illnesses or family emergencies, we're going to be at risk.”
The B.C. Day long weekend, then, is shaping up to be much like the long weekends in May and on Canada Day — a black eye to the reputation of BC Ferries. It’s going to take customer patience, time and ample provincial resources for BC Ferries to chart its way out of this mess.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]