Ferry worker shortage hints at underlying pressures

A busy holiday weekend for the state’s ferry system may be indicative of larger tensions building.

A busy holiday weekend for the state’s ferry system may be indicative of larger tensions that have been building over the past few years.

Lengthy wait times and cancelled sailings have become more common across the ferry system in 2021 as understaffed crews struggle to keep up during a pandemic that’s roaring back. In addition, some officials and residents believe there may be disgruntled ferry workers who are purposely adding to the shortages as a message.

Earlier this week, Washington State Ferries announced that the system would not be taking any more vehicle reservations during Labor Day Weekend, with the expectation that there may be a shortage of crew members and, as a result, cancelled sailings.

The ongoing labor shortage is believed to have a few different causes, including current crew members quarantining because of COVID-19 and a paucity of qualified mariners.

Ian Sterling, a spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, said Wednesday that he is aware of seven positive COVID cases among staff. That number, however, does not reflect the total number of employees who have had to quarantine because they came into direct contact with a COVID-positive coworker.

Sterling acknowledged that there are rumors of workers who will be protesting the state employee vaccine mandate by calling in sick and not showing up to work this weekend.

“You’re not legally allowed to strike as a state employee, but it’s hard to prove whether you’re sick or not,” he said.

On Aug. 9, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that state workers will have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.

“I wouldn’t be scared to take a ferry boat this weekend, but I would be considering, what are my options to get home if it wasn’t on a ferry boat?” Sterling said, adding that it’s like “planning for a snowstorm.”

He predicted that staffing challenges may improve heading into the fall, after the “last hurrah” of Labor Day weekend.

Although Sterling denied seeing any effects of workers striking yet, there are some that say otherwise.

In addition to being a South Whidbey resident, David Hoogerwerf is the chairperson for the Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee and the co-chairperson for the state’s Ferry Advisory Committee Executive Council.

Hoogerwerf said he has been aware that, during the last three to five years, ferry crew members who are on-call have increasingly not responded to calls to come in to work.

It’s a problem that has only worsened since the pandemic began, and he added that he has heard that there may have been concerted efforts among on-call employees to avoid phone calls about coming into work in order to stop a boat from sailing.

“I think the people have understood that they have some power here,” Hoogerwerf said. “Even Washington State Ferries is admitting that there is going to be a ‘sick-out’ this weekend. If people are going to do that, you’ve got to fire them.”

The extensive wait times for ferry crossings and cancelled sailings, he added, are unacceptable. A few weeks ago, with not enough crew to sail, one of the boats on the Clinton-Mukilteo route was taken out of service after its 5:40 p.m. sailing on a Saturday, causing a three-hour wait on the Whidbey side.

“I think it’s beyond just an inconvenience for the riders,” Hoogerwerf said. “This is a transportation system. It’s meant to work, it’s meant to be relied upon. It should work like clockwork, and it isn’t.”

He added that the ferries are a way of life for people. Besides tourists, there are people trying to get across the water to doctor’s appointments, to see family members, to get to work.

“Can you imagine if the road workers went on strike and they closed Snoqualmie Pass and people couldn’t get between Spokane and Seattle? There’d be hell to pay,” he said.

Hoogerwerf said he has heard that some South Whidbey residents are currently working on drafting a petition to send to the governor and the ferry system about the ongoing issues with the Clinton-Mukilteo route.

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