Driver shortage roadblock to restoring pre-pandemic service, transit director says


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A shortage of Winnipeg Transit drivers threatens to hamper efforts to restore the service to pre-pandemic levels.

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A shortage of Winnipeg Transit drivers threatens to hamper efforts to restore the service to pre-pandemic levels.

Transit is short about 50 drivers from a full complement of approximately 1,100 to operate its current schedule, and is already using overtime to fill the gaps, said Winnipeg Transit director Greg Ewankiw.

“These challenges are throughout North America. All transit systems are experiencing challenges in hiring bus drivers and maintenance staff, as well,” Ewankiw told media after discussing the challenges at Thursday’s finance committee meeting.

During the pandemic, Transit cut service by six per cent after ridership levels plummeted. Mayor Scott Gillingham campaigned on a promise to restore the service to its full pre-pandemic level in 2023.

But Ewankiw said the current staff number conflicts with that goal.

“For us to go to the full-service level today, I think, would be extremely challenging and I don’t know that we’d be able to achieve it,” he said.

Ewankiw said Transit has expedited recruiting for new drivers, holding single-day events to accept resumés and conduct interviews to try to eliminate the shortage quickly.

“We’ve shortened up that time to make the process more (appealing) to applicants,” he said.

The most common reasons shared by drivers for leaving the job are to seek opportunities in other locations, move with a spouse or for “personal reasons,” said Ewankiw.

The union that represents Transit drivers believes a safety crisis on buses is a key reason behind the shortage.

“We’re losing a lot of drivers to other cities because safety is a main concern…. They don’t feel it’s a safe job to be in right now (in Winnipeg),” said James Van Gerwen, executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.

Earlier this month, the union sounded the alarm on rising safety concerns after counting 107 assaults against bus drivers so far this year, including verbal threats, spitting, punching and attacks with a weapon. That’s up from 92 assaults during all of 2021.

ATU has long lobbied the city to add a dedicated transit security force to make driving and riding buses safer. Any steps to pursue that measure would go a long way in attracting and retaining drivers, said Van Gerwen.

“Any little thing we can get right now to show that (Winnipeg Transit) is starting to look at this seriously, we hope can help stop the flood of people leaving right now,” he said.

The union believes some drivers have also quit or retired due to public-health concerns during the pandemic, while others departed because of challenges in booking time off when the labour shortage made that more difficult.

Coun. Jeff Browaty, council’s finance chairman, agreed the city must address safety to help retain drivers.

“The amount of abuse on drivers has certainly escalated… I think that’s where we’re going to make the most progress most quickly is trying to find a way to provide that security on buses,” said Browaty (North Kildonan), noting a security force should be considered.

He said the city has hired a consultant to report on worker attraction and retention, since shortages are now wreaking havoc in multiple departments.

The city recently announced it will provide $1,500 worth of free training for 60 successful applicants to become lifeguards with Canada-Manitoba job grant funding to fill recreation vacancies.

Browaty said he’s hopeful Transit can still return to pre-pandemic service levels next year, even if that’s more likely to occur in the fall than on Jan. 1.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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