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Lack of benefits, regular hours leading to BC Transit’s driver shortage in Kelowna: union

Bus service in several communities was cut by 15 per cent at the beginning of January
(Black Press Media File Photo)

The union representing transit drivers in Kelowna says BC Transit isn’t offering much incentive to hire new drivers.

“When you get hired here you’re a casual driver, you have no benefits, you have no guarantee of hours and no pension, but you have to be available 18 days a month,” said Al Peressini, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1722. “Once you get to the top rate the wages are still low compared to other places across the province.”

In a statement last month, BC Transit said it has been facing a driver shortage for several months and was actively working to recruit more drivers. Bus service in several communities, including Kelowna, was cut by 15 per cent at the beginning of January.

“We lost 17 full-time positions,” added Peressini. “I think there are six or seven full-time drivers that didn’t get vaccinated, they’re on unpaid leave and another seven or eight casual drivers that didn’t get vaccinated either.”

Transit in Kelowna is actually run by First Transit a company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were just bought by Swedish global investment firm EQT explained Peressini.

“They’re a huge hedge fund company,” he added. “They had a net profit of $3 billion in 2020. BC Transit funds the operating company (First Transit). Now is BC Transit not funding enough to pay drivers a proper, fair living wage, or are they paying the money to these private companies, and are they running the system as cheap as possible and taking the profits back home with them?”

Ultimately, Peressini would like to see BC Transit run the Kelowna operation, as they do in Victoria.

“Take the middle man out,” he explained. “Whatever profits they are making BC Transit can take that same money and put it right back into the system. That way we could all be under BC Transit’s benefit and pension plans.”

Peressini added the top pay rate for drivers in Kelowna is about four dollars an hour less than what drivers in Victoria are paid. He stated drivers start at almost $24 an hour in Kelowna.

A spokesperson with BC Transit says the pay structure between the two cities is closely aligned.

“In Kelowna, drivers with First Transit start at $23.82/hr, but after probation it increases to $25.30/hr,” explained Jamie Weiss, senior media relations and public affairs advisor. “This aligns directly with the salary structure in the first year for new drivers in Victoria. After three years in Kelowna pay can increase to nearly $30/hr. After three years in Victoria, a driver can make just over $32/hr.”

BC Transit and its operating company in the Kelowna Regional Transit System, First Transit, are also working to hire more drivers.

“Like all of BC Transit’s operating partners, First Transit is responsible for their own hiring, training, and operations,” said Weiss. “There is currently no shortage of available work due to the ongoing labour shortage and the impacts of COVID-19 on employee wellness.” First Transit recently held a successful recruitment day at their transit facility on Hardy Street, with approximately 30 people showing up to apply. There are also several applicants proceeding through the training and onboarding process in the coming weeks.”

Contract negotiations between the union representing Kelowna drivers and First Transit are set for this month.

Read More: BC Transit comments on labour shortages in Kelowna

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Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
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