Cruise operator lays off 20 staff as closure of LaSalle Causeway likely to last until July

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines LaSalle Causeway

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines has laid off 20 employees as a direct result of the ongoing closure of the LaSalle Causeway, says Daniel Beals, human resources and marketing manager for the cruise operator.

The Kingston company had been paying the crew of the Canadian Empress their usual wages despite not being able to operate, but Beals said the out-of-pocket cost was no longer sustainable.

“We met with (Public Services and Procurement Canada) on Monday and they said there weren’t any options … It’s going to be the timeline they’ve previously laid out of seven to nine weeks,” Beals told EOBJ Wednesday. “When they made that clear … it was on us to make sure we don’t keep our workers hanging and keep them in the dark.”

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The causeway has been closed since a portion of it was damaged March 30 during a repair project. The federal government, which maintains the causeway, has said that the closure could extend into July, much to the dismay of cruise line operators who have boats stranded in the inner harbour.

On Wednesday, PSPC announced that pedestrians would have access to the causeway, as well as cyclists, who are required to dismount and walk their bicycles. 

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines operates the Canadian Empress, which takes guests to Montreal, Quebec City and the National Capital Region. Currently, the 60-passenger overnight cruise ship is moored in the inner harbour.

The layoffs, which Beals said mostly affect young people and students who rely on seasonal summer jobs, leaves 10 crew members remaining. Beals said it takes 14 people to operate the Canadian Empress without passengers, but requires 30 crew members for a full cruise.

When the causeway eventually re-opens, Beals will begin re-hiring, a process he said costs thousands of dollars. Until then, he is working with a local employment agency to try and connect laid-off workers with temporary roles.

The closure of the causeway in Kingston has caused headaches for other local business owners as well, some of whom are resorting to pandemic-era sales and tactics to stay afloat.

According to data from the Downtown Kingston BIA, there were at least 6,600 fewer visitors to the city’s downtown in April as compared to 2023, and 3,000 fewer than March. Key tourist draws such as Kingston Destination Group’s dockside bar and trolley sightseeing tours, in addition to the cruise ships, have been affected by the causeway’s closure.

“It’s slow now, but May is usually slow,” said Tim Pater, owner of five downtown Kingston restaurants. “Students, faculty and parents are gone, but tourists haven’t quite arrived yet. Still, the causeway’s closure is a major concern for everyone downtown.”

Pater said the concern goes beyond the cancellation of boat trips and hotel stays during the closure – it’s also about how long shopping patterns might take to recover once the causeway re-opens. 

Christine Ray Bratt, owner of two downtown businesses and chair of the Downtown Kingston BIA board, is worried about the short-term decline and the potential impact if tourists decide to go elsewhere this summer.

“Weekday traffic has been a bit better, but those who are coming in for a specific activity are doing whatever they came to do and getting out of Dodge,” she said. “Since traffic is taking two to three times longer for some, we’re seeing fewer lingering shoppers.”

Ray Bratt said she is offering deeper incentives at her clothing store, Chris James, and focusing more on COVID-era tactics of online sales and home delivery. However, she notes it’s not a perfect solution, since her customers usually want to try things on before buying.

“There are already so many struggling, hoping to make it through to busy summer time,” Ray Bratt added. “If we don’t get that summer traffic, coupled with the existing economic uncertainty and higher labour costs, it will close some businesses.”

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