BC Ferries vessel Spirit of Vancouver Island passes between Galiano Island and Mayne Island while traveling from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen, B.C., on Friday Aug. 26, 2011. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

British Columbia's ferry operator had no right to lay off hundreds of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, an independent labour arbitrator has ruled.

The temporary layoffs at BC Ferries were announced April 4, when the first of approximately 425 regular employees and 690 casual employees were dismissed that week.

But the layoffs broke the company's contract with the BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union, according to a ruling released Friday.

According to the ferry service's collective agreement with the union, the company is required to pay employees a specific monthly amount in accordance with its negotiated wage schedule.

The agreement also stipulates the company does not have the right to unilaterally place regular employees on "off-duty status," as it did during the pandemic.

"I have determined that the employer did not have an inherent or residual management right to temporarily lay off ferry services employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic," arbitrator John B. Hall wrote in his Sept. 28 finding in the union's favour.

Hall has now referred his decision to BC Ferries and the employees' union to find a resolution. "I reserve jurisdiction in the event there are any remaining differences following their discussions," Hall wrote.

Marine workers union president Graeme Johnston told CTV News he is relieved by the decision.

"When I got the arbitration in my inbox, my hands were shaking," Johnston said in an interview Friday. "I flipped it open and went to the last page, and when I read the conclusion, I dropped a couple tears because I was so relieved to see that this was the decision."

According to the ruling, BC Ferries first provided the union with details of looming service cuts as a result of pandemic travel restrictions on April 1.

On April 3, the company alerted all employees that it intended to lay off "hundreds" of union members as a result of the service cuts.

The following day, the layoffs began and included the dismissal of some senior-level regular and casual workers while more junior employees continued working, in contravention of the collective agreement.

The union grieved the dismissals on April 5, and on April 9 filed an application for arbitration with the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

On April 11, BC Ferries rescinded the temporary layoffs for regular employees and announced it would pay them 75 per cent of their base salaries for days without work and regular pay for days worked. The layoffs for casual employees remained in place.

By July 2, all regular and casual employees had returned to their jobs with full pay.

BC Ferries declined to provide a statement to CTV News about the decision Friday, saying it had only just received the ruling.

"Until we have had an opportunity to thoroughly review the decision, we won’t have any further comments," said spokesperson Tessa Humphries.

Johnston, the union president, said the decision upholds the principle that "a deal is a deal."

"Back in April when the pandemic hit, we were negotiating with BC Ferries to try to avoid a layoff," he said. "They decided to use their own process and laid off over 1,000 ferry workers and they decided to discard the deal we had. Now they found out that they have no right to do that."