Deer Island residents were shocked and more than 20 workers on the government-run ferry between Deer Island and Letete are worried about their jobs after the New Brunswick government announced on April 18 that it had entered into an agreement to turn the service over to a private company. Coastal Transport Ltd. of Saint John, which already operates the Grand Manan and White Head ferries under the Fundy Isles Ferry Service, has signed a 15-year agreement with the provincial government for operating and maintaining the government-owned ferries serving the Fundy Isles, including Deer Island.
The announcement noted that there will be no changes in the schedule and that there will continue to be no fees for the ferry. However, Joyce Stuart, chairman of the West Isles Local Service District (LSD) Advisory Committee, says, "We're more concerned about the jobs. We're hoping the crews all are able to get jobs and stay on the island." She notes that since last September 20 adults and children have moved from Deer Island, leaving about 700 full-time residents on the island.
She adds, "We're glad there will be no fees or changes in the schedule. But for 15 years, there might need to be a change in the schedule." She believes that, if a need arose for an extended ferry schedule, it might be difficult now to get it changed.
Stuart observes that, before he was elected premier, David Alward had said the service would not be privatized under a Conservative government. She also points out that there was no consultation with islanders or the LSD about the privatization of the ferry service and that the general consensus among islanders has been that they did not want the service to be run by a private company.
Judy Cole, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, notes that the issue has been considered since 2007. She declines to comment on the government's campaign promises.
As part of the new performance‑based contract, the inclusion of the Deer Island ferry service will enable the operator to increase business and efficiency and improve the flexibility of its workforce, according to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claude Williams. "Grouping all of the province's coastal ferry services into one will allow for more focused management of this sector," he said in a release. "Coastal Transport Ltd. is a well‑known and respected company. We are confident Deer Island ferry users will continue to receive quality, reliable and safe service from the operator."
Despite those assurances, questions remain about the transition. "The workers were shocked" by the privatization announcement, says Andrew Hardy, president of CUPE Local 1190, which represents the ferry service employees. "We were told that under a Conservative government it wouldn't be privatized."
At a meeting on April 19 with Coastal Transport officials, the employees were informed that they would all get an interview for a position but there were no guarantees of a job. Hardy says the employees are worried. He expects most of them will get a job with Coastal Transport, but "it would be a lot easier for them if they knew for sure."
However, Williams points to the benefits of having the service run by a private operator. "This inclusive partnership agreement will provide sustainability of the service for the islands during the long term." He also notes that Coastal Transport has agreed on hiring "the majority of employees to ensure a smooth transition of the service. Every reasonable effort will be made to reassign any remaining staff with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. Collective agreements will be respected throughout this process."
Deer Island ferry service workers won't know until May 14 if they will have positions with Coastal Transport. The company will officially take over the ferry service on May 28.
Hardy notes that "a sticking point" concerning the transition to the private operator is health insurance coverage. Those who are hired by Coastal Transport will have a 120-day probationary period during which they will have to cover their health insurance until they are covered by the company's benefits plan. The cost is approximately $320 per month for family coverage and $172 per month for single coverage. He also points out that some of the employees have worked for 20 years for the government and that seniority, vacation and sick days that they had built up will all be wiped out. Concerning pensions, regular employees can leave their money with the government pension plan or cash it out. "It's a lot for them to take in," he comments about the changes the workers face.
Hardy observes that the employees say that the service cannot be run with fewer than 20 workers. Most of the employees are from Deer Island, and there are 17 regular employees, four seasonal, two term positions and about six casual positions. Hardy believes most will apply to work for Coastal Transport, although some who are close to retirement age may retire. Under their collective agreement's job security clause under which 19 workers are covered, the Department of Transportation will make offers for positions within the DOT's District 4 to those who do not end up working for Coastal Transport. Hardy notes that most of those positions would be on the Saint John cable ferry service.
Whether the move will actually save money for the province is another question that has not been answered. The new contract for all ferry services to the Fundy Isles totals $13.8 million per year. "My concern is the province signed a 15-year deal for $13.8 million a year with Coastal," Hardy says. If one compares the portion for the Deer Island service with the amount it cost the government to run the ferry, he wonders, "Will it save any money?" The government has not released what its cost has been, but Hardy says he will be trying to obtain that information. "The people in New Brunswick have a right to know whether they will save any money."
New ferry to be built
Along with the announcement of the privatization of the service, the provincial government also announced that a new $4.7 million ferry is expected to be in operation for Deer Island in 2014. Coastal Transport Ltd. will continue to operate and maintain the current vessels until that time. The new ferry will replace the John E. Rigby, one of those two ferries.
Cole says that construction of the new ferry will go out to tender next year. The 24-car ferry will have a greater capacity than the John E. Rigby, which carries 18 cars.