B.C. ferry workers warn sudden vaccination mandate may cause staff shortages but company disagrees

The union representing B.C. Ferry workers says a recent vaccination mandate for federally-regulated industries gave too little warning and may cause staffing shortages, as crews scramble to meet requirements.

But B.C. Ferries disagrees.

A spokesperson says most ferry staff are reporting they are already vaccinated, so the shift to requiring shots should be “smooth” sailing.

The ferry corporation says that all employees and contractors who work on board vessels need to have their first dose of vaccine by Nov. 15 and their second dose by Jan. 24. The remainder of B.C. Ferries’ workers will be required to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 28, 2022

Failure to meet the deadlines will result in employees being put on leave without pay, it says.

On Nov. 9, hundreds of ferry workers attended a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the union.

The meeting included labour law experts who fielded questions from workers struggling with what the union called “significant challenges” meeting COVID-19 testing requirements on time. The union says the new rules are difficult, especially for crew who work in remote locations.

“The ferry system in B.C. has so little staff resiliency, I hope they are right but we could see shortages,” said Eric McNeely, the provincial president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union.

A B.C. Ferries sign showing cancelled service to Nanaimo is pictured at Horseshoe Bay terminal in Horseshoe Bay, B.C., on Jan. 3, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A COVID-19 vaccination policy was issued to employees on Nov. 5.

Staff must divulge by Nov. 10 whether or not they are vaccinated, to allow B.C. Ferries time to confirm numbers to Transport Canada by Monday, Nov. 15.

McNeely says the short-notice deadlines are “unreasonable” as staffing is too thin and could lead to worker shortages and ferry delays or waits, if a significant enough number of workers are unable to meet them. 

Union upset at absence of passenger vaccine enforcement

The union is also unhappy passengers are not require to show proof of vaccination as is already the case with anyone travelling by rail or air in Canada.

“My members aren’t scared of the co-worker they’ve been standing beside for 20 months of the pandemic. They are more concerned about the 60,000 people travelling through the ferry system that are under less scrutiny than I would be if I went to White Spot for dinner.”

A passenger walks the deck of a BC Ferry. (Yvette Brend)

In B.C., people who use the ferry system or other forms of transit like buses do not have to show their vaccine passport, according to provincial policy. 

B.C. Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall says the Transport Canada order for staff to vaccinate was shared as fast as possible, and so far, the ferry service is predicting a “smooth transition.”

So far, she says the company does not anticipate any problems with service, as most companies going through similar processes are reporting vaccination refusal rates no higher than two per cent.

“We cannot provide a guarantee, [but] we predict little or no impact on our service,” said Marshall in a statement emailed to CBC.

“We believe implementing a mandatory vaccination policy for all employees is the right thing to do to protect everyone who works for, or travels with, BC Ferries,” Marshall wrote.

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