OC Transpo's general manager is apologizing to riders for the many bus trips that have been cancelled in recent weeks, and laid out a plan Wednesday to hire up to 300 more drivers to deal with a staff shortage.
The head of the drivers' union had drawn public attention last week to how new half-hour breaks have led to scheduling changes. Those breaks are now required under the Canada Labour Code and OC Transpo implemented them on April 24.
ATU Local 279 president Clint Crabtree said long-time drivers were having to work weekend shifts and morale was at an all-time low.
The City of Ottawa's general manager of transit, Renée Amilcar, told transit commission on Wednesday that those breaks are indeed causing a driver shortage.
An average of 300 bus trips a day are being cancelled — out of a total of 8,000 on the schedule for OC Transpo's many routes, she explained.
"I take this opportunity to apologize to our customers, and I promise you that we're working very, very hard to resolve this situation," she told the commission.
The city had known for a couple of years that the federal government would be requiring employees receive a half-hour break for every five hours of work, and council had budgeted for an extra 80 drivers in 2022.
"On top of these  new positions, we will be hiring 200 more new operators to fill upcoming vacancies as a result of attrition, LRT expansion, retirements, and employees moving to other roles in the organization," said Amilcar, who then showed the commission a recruitment video.
Required breaks not a surprise
Some transit commissioners questioned how OC Transpo could find itself in this situation, when they have been hearing about the anticipated changes to the labour code for a couple of years.
"Why are we in the eleventh hour reacting to the situation?" said River ward Coun. Riley Brockington.
Amilcar explained the federal government had provided only a general message that the law would eventually come into effect, and OC Transpo leadership at the time had decided not to hire and pay drivers proactively before they were needed.
She says she would have made the same decision, and it was only last fall that OC Transpo received a date when the new breaks would be legally required.
Now faced with a shortage and the need to have more drivers on hand for September, OC Transpo will seek to have operators take their annual leave in the summer rather than fall.
That concerned citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert. She receives daily messages from operators, she said, and even heard from some of them during the meeting.
"The messages I am getting are full of vitriol and are full of anger, and I think they are representative of a large swath of your operators," said Wright-Gilbert. "I am concerned we're going to have a great resignation amongst our operators and the people who are going to get messed over on this are our customers."
Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh also wondered if the new recruits would be able to count on having job security, given that Ottawa would be replacing buses in the coming years with expanded train lines in all directions.
Amilcar answered that OC Transpo is planning for the long term and will try to balance retirements with service needs so as not to hire people only to dismiss them.
She added that OC Transpo works well and collaboratively with its union and employees, and drivers should see their schedules smoothed out as new staff get behind the wheel.
According to the city's 2022 budget, Ottawa's transit department has more than 3,100 full-time positions. The shortage exists only among employees represented by ATU 279, which make up about two-thirds of the total.