Employees struggling with transit? Here’s what business owners can do to help

LRT transit Ottawa

In the wake of a prolonged shutdown of Ottawa’s light-rail transit system and with winter weather conditions looming, unreliable public transit is creating uncertainty and worry for many businesses. 

Experts suggest there are things that business owners can do to address the issue.

“It is hugely problematic if there’s a system that prevents employees from getting to work,” said Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of Ottawa’s iHR Advisory Services. “The onus is on the employee, but if you want to be a top-tier employer, you can look into possible solutions.

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“You don’t own the responsibility to get your employee to work and you need to be clear about that,” she continued. “But there are alternative things you can do … It’s important for employers to sit down with people and get a sense of what’s going on.”

According to Brownrigg, some employers have started offering parking passes or additional vehicle allowances. Businesses can also consider designated pickup zones, where employees gather for a carpool. Employers can discuss with their team whether there are areas of the city or times of day that create major transit complications, Brownrigg added, so that “work and solutions can be designed around those things to remove the barriers.”

“Some employees might see this as an accommodation requirement and that’s not the case, because (employers) are not required to accommodate transportation needs,” she said. “But employers should want to be engaged in conversation with employees and understand what they’re dealing with because if everyone is getting to work stressed and late, they’re not able to be productive.”

If employees struggle with the financial aspect of using a personal vehicle, employers could create incentives to help with gas or parking. To save costs, the incentives could even be part of a “self-select” benefits program for employees, she added.

“It’s only some or part of the workforce, so it’s not something that needs to be offered to everyone,” Brownrigg explained. “It’s a two-way conversation about solving the unique problems that are happening for employees in the workplace. Situations are different pending on where people live and their mode of transportation.”

The Canadian Federation of Businesses (CFIB) has seen businesses negatively impacted by transit issues, with both employees and customers struggling to navigate the city, adding another layer of difficulty for small businesses that may already be challenged.

“For any business facing transit delays or issues, it’s incredibly frustrating,” said Ryan Mallough, vice-president of legislative affairs for Ontario at CFIB. “When you pay into a public transit system, you expect it to work and when it doesn’t, it has an impact on so many things.

“It’s not only another nail in the coffin for some, but another added bit of uncertainty and added layer of stress,” he added. “Often, (business owners are) just not quite sure what’s happening, which is so difficult for businesses when it comes to this. It’s just another thing to deal with.”

Open communication is key, Mallough said, to ensure misunderstandings or conflicts don’t unfold in the workplace.

“The main thing we see from small businesses is flexibility and understanding that this is a reality and to understand the system is delayed or broken down and the employee could be late through no fault of their own,” he explained. “There’s nothing worse than waiting for someone to come in and not knowing why they’re late.”

For fast-paced work environments like restaurants and fast food outlets that rely on being well-staffed for peak hours, employers could consider extending shifts and creating an overlap to absorb the workload if a team member is running late, Brownrigg suggested.

“It could help in reducing anxiety, so it’s an interesting thing to consider,” she explained. “Now, there’s a cost factor, so do a cost-benefit analysis. What is the cost of students not being able to get there to the business to work, versus potentially paying people to come in earlier? That might just be the cost of doing business.

“It’s about having a plan before you need it. Designing it while it’s happening, in more cases than not, involves people going back on their tracks,” Brownrigg continued. “If you’re not taking the time to sit down and look at the different scenarios, it’s not applied consistently, and that creates confusion and, in the worst cases, conflict.”

Overlapping shifts could be the most financially feasible option for some employers and one that Mullough said will likely be considered more often by businesses in the future.

“I’d love to say there are lots of businesses in a position that can offer financial support around transit, but that’s not the case.”

Ultimately, open channels of communication and discussion are vital in navigating the current transit situation. But that extends past employers and their teams, Mullough said.

“This same standard applies to city government and transit authority,” he said. “Both should be soliciting (input) from (business) owners and employers, seeing what the delays mean.

“You expect transit to run on time. When it doesn’t … it has an impact on the local economy for employers, for shoppers who can’t get around, and we need to be making sure on the government side that they’re aware of the impacts it’s having and make it a top priority to ensure this is fixed as quickly as possible.”

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