Like many other sectors facing workforce shortages, Halifax Transit is feeling the strain of an overburdened system.
Twice this month, the municipality has begun cancelling certain trips to try and alleviate the pain.
Currently, 31 trips are affected, and the municipality says the cancellations will remain “until further notice.”
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Staff shortages are so bad, Mayor Mike Savage said the municipality had to alter plans for the Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Championships in early August.
“We were hopeful that transit could play a large role in moving athletes,” Savage said. “But the simple fact is, we don’t have enough transit operators to do that.”
Savage added that other transit organizations in the country are facing similar shortages, as are many other fields, such as the bar and restaurant industry.
“It’s a problem across the board. Our operators work very hard on behalf of the people and we respect the work that they do. But it’s a challenge right now. I know from talking to the executive director of Halifax Transit, they’re very focused on it.”
In an e-mail exchange last week, Halifax Regional Municipality spokesperson Ryan Nearing said that while staff shortages remain, the transit service would pro-actively cancel select trips and provide users advanced notice.
An interview with Halifax Transit management was not made available.
When asked how long the cancellations could last, or if the problem could worsen over the summer, Nearing said they were “actively recruiting bus operators, in an effort to resume full service as soon as possible.”
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For the union representing Halifax Transit bus drivers and ferry operators, that’s little consolation.
“Transit is so stressful and I apologize to the public if an operator or a member of the ferry is not what you expected that day, but you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. You really don’t,” said Shane O’Leary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 508.
“Our operators are out there by choice trying to keep the system running. The ferry guys are out there by choice trying to keep the system running. Trying to work as much as they can. And you know what? That tends to burn people out.”
O’Leary spoke to Global News two weeks ago, after the first round of trip cancellations were announced.
During the height of the pandemic, drivers off sick were a real strain on the system. Now, sick days are still a factor, but a shortage of employees is the bigger problem.
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O’Leary said bus drivers and ferry operators are overwhelmed and overworked. He estimated that every morning is about 30 to 40 operators short of what is necessary to complete the work.
Specifically, he said ferry captains, deckhands and engineers are working double shifts “almost every day to keep the system running.”
Nearing said staff safety and mental health are priorities for Halifax Transit, and that bus operators are “regularly reminded” of the resources available for municipal staff.
“Halifax Transit also encourages operators to monitor themselves and their co-workers for signs of burnout and to raise it with their supervisor,” he said.
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However, O’Leary said fed-up workers are just quitting.
“I got a message from the employer today that two people resigned on the spot today, just done,” he said.
“You can’t keep telling somebody who works nights to come in the next morning and do an extra (shift). You can’t keep telling somebody who works every day that gets off at 2 o’clock you got to work another four hours today. You can’t keep doing that to people.”
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Key to fixing the problem, O’Leary said, is recruiting more new employees.
The municipality agrees. Nearing said they’re adjusting their recruitment tactics, and upcoming efforts will include advertising and in-person events.
“A number of external factors, such as labour market challenges, are contributing to the current staff shortage,” said Nearing.
“The municipality’s intention in adjusting previous recruitment efforts is to provide a profound understanding of the role and benefits associated with working for Halifax Transit.”
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As proof of how difficult the situation is, O’Leary said the number of applicants who finish the training course right now isn’t even enough to fill the vacancies.
“They can’t even fill the pool. They’re supposed to pull 16 people in the pool. The last class … they had 12. Two didn’t show up. One quit as soon as class started … seven graduated the six-week class,” he said.
The starting wage for an operator is about $21 an hour, he said, and it takes about five years to get to the top wage rate.
“When I started at a transit, it was a career. It’s no longer a career. People are just walking in, getting their Class 2 licence and deciding, ‘This is not what I want. I’m coming in at the lowest wage. I have to do the worst work due to seniority. I’m working nights and weekends and I’m waiting for better vacations,’” he said.
“But you can’t start at those wage rates and expect people to stick around.”
The solution, he said, is more incentives to attract new hires. That would include signing bonuses and higher wages.
Those are things he’d like to discuss in the next collective agreement negotiations. Their contract expired in September of last year.
Savage said the municipality is “committed” to being a good employer.
“We have negotiation that we have with Metro Transit, Halifax Transit operators. We go through the normal channels that will come to council, as it always does,” Savage said.
“This year, for the first time ever, Halifax was chosen as one of the top employers in Atlantic Canada. Not many governments made that mark. So we’re trying to make sure that our employees know we treat them with respect, that we pay them a reasonable wage and that their work is valued.”
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Savage went on to say that a reliable transit system is “hugely important” for Halifax, especially as the areas outside the city core continue to grow.
He said there are councillors who have been “aggressively making the case” for expanded transit service to those areas.
“We have to take that really seriously. The first thing, though, is we have to have good, reliable transit in the core of the city so people know they can get around, that they can get the transfers, that they’re not going to be sitting, waiting,” he said.
“We need to get people out of cars, onto busses, onto bikes, rollerblading, walking, all kinds of things. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for our health. It’s good for our roads and it’s good for our environment. So very important.”
Halifax has made great effort in promoting green transportation, including a now-paused pilot project to make a busy downtown street bus-only.
In June 2020, council also approved HalifACT, a plan to achieve net-zero economy by 2050, which the municipality says is “one of the most ambitious climate action movements in Canada.”
So O’Leary wonders why Halifax isn’t putting more of an emphasis on improving transit.
“Every successful city in the world has a successful transit system. Our system is not successful right now.”
“Our system is failing the citizens of Halifax and it’s not the operator’s fault. The operators do not set the hours, they don’t set the routes, they don’t set the schedules. It’s all done behind the scenes,” O’Leary said.
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