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Halifax has cancelled an “unprecedented” number of weekday bus trips because of a staffing shortage, the transit worker union said Monday, adding that low hourly wages and gruelling work hours are to blame.

It’s never been harder to retain Halifax Transit staff, Shane O’Leary, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, said in an interview. Halifax has cancelled 75 out of about 3,970 weekday bus trips in the city, citing a lack of staff.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been so short of (labour) that we had to drop trips like this,” O’Leary said, adding that he worries the staffing levels are “going to get worse before getting better.”

O’Leary, who’s been a transit worker for 23 years, said more and more bus drivers, accessible van drivers and ferry operators in the city are quitting because the pay has not kept up with the rising cost of living and the work hours are long.

It’s typical, he added, for many Halifax transit operators to work 60 to 70 hours a week, and he said the hours continue to be extended as workers cover for the lack of drivers in the system. About 40 transit workers have resigned so far in 2022, O’Leary said.

Halifax pays its transit operators $21.45 per hour for training and $22.88 per hour in the first year of work. Operators hit a maximum hourly pay of $28.61 after four years. Operators who drive the city’s accessible buses make about $2 less an hour, O’Leary added.

“People are leaving because of the work and because of the wages, and if we don’t get better work and better wages they will not be able to staff back up,” O’Leary said.

City spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray said in an e-mail that Halifax is actively recruiting new transit operators with the help of a marketing campaign and regular transit employment information sessions.

O’Leary said the fastest way to improve hiring and retention of transit operators is to offer them a raise, ideally of around 10 per cent. “Something drastic has to be done now,” he said.

The city has proposed dates in October to negotiate a new transit operators contract; the current one expired Aug. 31, 2021, O’Leary said. But a clause in the union’s contract permits a wage increase at any time if both parties agree, he added.

Spray said the city has no plans to raise transit workers’ wages ahead of a new contract.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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