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Minister for BC Ferries 'unaware' of severe staffing challenge

The British Columbia cabinet minister responsible for BC Ferries said he's unaware of the staffing problems at the publicly owned company.

"That hasn't been brought to my attention," said Blair Lekstrom, the minister of transportation and infrastructure. "BC Ferries runs their organization. They obviously recruit the employees they need to run the service that I think we've all come to enjoy and depend on."

The Tyee reported last week that in a March 26, 2012 internal email, Phil Ker, the manager responsible for crew scheduling out of Swartz Bay said there is a "severe challenge" to find enough first engineers to cover all sailings.

He connected the shortage to a change the company made a year ago when it moved senior officers out of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union and into management positions. "We have lost more engineers than we have gained and we must now fill the holes from existing or borrowed engineers until we fill the vacancies here in [Swartz Bay]," he wrote.

When the exclusions were announced, The Tyee reported that BC Ferries employees were warning that the move would result in crewing problems that would lead to more cancelled sailings and delays, a story other media also covered at the time.

"We brought it up about a year ago," said NDP ferry critic Gary Coons. "It's illogical we would embark on this and it's even more illogical the minister wouldn't know anything about it."

Senior officers who chose not to be excluded from the union are still working for the company and collecting their previous salaries, but doing different work, said Coons. He cited the example of a former senior chief engineer who is working as a terminal attendant and said he'd also heard of another who is working in a ferry cafeteria, calling it "A huge waste of experience and talent."

Coons said officers have warned that the exclusions could lead to safety problems and that some are concerned the company's recent hires lack experience and knowledge of the vessels.

"I fear it's a disaster waiting to happen," he said. "It's only going to get worse."

Lekstrom shouldn't hide behind BC Ferries' independence, Coons said. "I don't think anybody's independent and should be independent when it comes to public safety."

A spokesperson for BC Ferries didn't respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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