Safety concerns present challenge to filling Winnipeg Transit vacancies, say councillor, union

Transit missing 50 drivers out of a full slate of 1,100

Winnipeg bus riders shouldn’t expect the service to get back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, due to a shortage of drivers, says Winnipeg Transit’s director.

Greg Ewankiw told the city’s finance committee on Thursday that the service is trying to fill those vacancies, but has trouble keeping drivers it hires.

“I think there’s opportunity to move to other jurisdictions, as well as even other transit systems, because other transit systems are also looking for bus operators,” Ewankiw told reporters following the meeting.

“If somebody had a desire to move to another jurisdiction, they now have that opportunity, because there’s more hiring going on.”

Winnipeg Transit has reduced its service by six per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels, Ewankiw told the finance committee. It’s currently missing about 50 drivers out of a full slate of about 1,100.

Finance committee chair Jeff Browaty said safety concerns are the biggest reason Transit drivers are leaving.

“The amount of abuse on drivers has certainly escalated,” the North Kildonan councillor said.

“I’d like to see improvements to safety, and I believe Mayor [Scott] Gillingham talked about that in his campaign platform as well. I think that’s where we’re going to find the most progress … is trying to find a way to provide that security on buses.”

Gillingham has said he would like to see peace officers on buses, but he hasn’t said yet how many there would be or who would pay for them.

The challenges drivers face in Winnipeg are being felt across North America, Ewankiw said.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg Transit drivers, has also called for a transit security force, as well as full shields to protect drivers and an improved radio system to call for help.

“A lot of our members are leaving because morale is a big issue,” union president Romeo Ignacio said in an interview.

“Some of them don’t feel supported. There are some members that are saying the transit system’s OK, but there’s also people that are saying there’s not enough support from the city or from transit supervisors.”

Winnipeg Transit used to have a mentorship program, with experienced bus operators working with new drivers to help them learn the job, but the program was cancelled about 10 years ago, Ignacio said. He would like to see the program reinstated.

Browaty also placed some of the blame on the union practice of giving senior drivers first choice of routes, leaving the more difficult and less desirable routes for new employees.

“It’s hard to attract people, in many cases, to take some of those less desirable routes … so you’re working split shifts often — you have to work morning rush hour and you have to work the [evening] rush hour,” Browaty said.

Ignacio acknowledged that senior drivers get more choice about routes, but said the issue isn’t the routes themselves — it’s abuse from some passengers.

He also said the city needs to adjust its schedules, because often drivers don’t have enough time to make their stops due to traffic. 

“It’s about how the city creates the schedule, and then address the issue of safety,” he said.