British Columbia

'A completely unreasonable burden': Health-care workers concerned over potential transit cuts

Public transit is an essential service in British Columbia relied on by many — including essential workers — to get to work or to purchase groceries and other necessities.

TransLink previously announced possible cuts to service if it doesn't receive financial aid

TransLink says it's losing $75 million per month due to COVID-19 (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Public transit is an essential service in British Columbia relied on by many — including essential workers — to get to work or to purchase groceries and other necessities.

But TransLink, Metro Vancouver's transit authority, announced this week it might be forced to reduce its service because it's hemorrhaging around $2.5 million every day due to numerous factors including reduced ridership.

Now, some of those essential workers are worried transit service cuts will make it difficult for them to get to work.

"It's simply a completely unreasonable additional burden put on these workers," said Jennifer Whiteside, secretary business manager for the Hospital Employees Union, which represents more than 50,000 members in all sectors of the health-care system.

She says public transit is especially crucial in the Lower Mainland where high housing costs have forced many outside of city centres, who then rely on a transit system to get to work.

Jennifer Whiteside says reducing transit service will greatly affect many essential workers who rely on it to get to their jobs. (CBC News/Harman)

And it's not only those working on the front line of the crisis who will be affected but also those working behind the scenes, she says, many of whom are already earning low wages, such as housekeeping and food service workers contracted to private employers. 

She says employees in that sector often travel more than an hour to get to work.

"Health-care workers, right now, are working in extraordinarily stressful systems. We have never seen in our lives a crisis of the scale that we are dealing with now," said Whiteside.

"Adding on the additional burden of having to worry about how to get to work is not an additional stress that these workers are going to be able to contend with."

TransLink has asked both the provincial and federal governments for financial aid to continue operating. Over the last month, it has seen its ridership drop by up to 90 per cent.

The transit service believes $250 million in funding will allow it to continue a reasonable level of essential service — while respecting safe physical distancing requirements — if restrictions on most activities continue for a significant period.

One in five health-care workers in B.C. relies on transit according to research on the latest census by Andy Yan, an adjunct professor of urban planning at SFU, while for other essential workers, like cleaners, he says, it's closer to one in four.

"That's a really important understanding of who is being affected by these cuts," said Yan.

Andy Yan says his research found that one in five health-care workers relies on public transit. (CBC News/Harman)

He says, if service cuts go ahead, many essential workers will be marooned without access to transit.

As well, he says it highlights the fragility of the transit system's funding structure, which relies heavily on fares. It's something he predicts will need to be addressed in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

But, right now, in the midst of the crisis, Whiteside says immediate action is needed.

"There needs to be a solution around securing transportation for [essential] workers to get to work," he said.

With files from Lien Yeung

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