Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest ferry system, is in trouble. After months of delays and canceled sailings, staffing woes have forced the agency to cut back services indefinitely. While COVID-19 is a major cause, its effects exacerbated challenges for the underfunded and antiquated system.
These delays and disruptions are unacceptable in a system that has millions of boardings each year, offers convenient access around the Puget Sound and is the only viable transportation option for many Washingtonians.
More than 150 new crew members have been hired to address the staffing shortfall, officials said, but the system has lost more people to other jobs and to retirement than they’ve been able to hire. One particular high barrier for entry level positions also hurts recruitment
Kitsap County resident Elliott Smith said he took advantage of his unemployment during the pandemic to gain maritime training. He wanted to work on a ferry but was dismayed to find that new hires are expected to spend two years “on-call.” That is, be ready to work on any ferry in the system on short notice and some days not work at all.
“Nobody wants to do that,” he said. “That’s why I’m working on a ship in Texas; they offered me a full-time job.”
Over the last five years, only 10% to 15% of on-call employees have returned to work the following season, officials said.
Roger Millar, Washington’s secretary of transportation, recognizes the problem and said there is a global shortage of qualified mariners. That leaves a state ferry system that offers an unpredictable work schedule — and doesn’t even pay for training — at a clear disadvantage.
“What we need is funding for training and funding for recruiting and funding for overtime. And that is regularly stripped out of our budget as the Legislature balances revenue to cost,” he said.
Staffing has been a problem for years along with canceled sailings. Low funding by the Legislature means crews are budgeted at the minimum number mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which leaves little margin for error if even a single crew member fails to show.
The service cuts have at least prompted more lawmakers to take notice. Legislators from affected districts have formed a Ferry Caucus and are advocating for increased funding in the transportation budget that would allow for better retention strategies. This would include ending seasonal hiring practices to maintain year-round staffing.
For his part, Gov. Jay Inslee has said the staffing model needs to change, but that will take additional dollars from the Legislature. Of course, this is the same governor who vetoed provisions in climate legislation meant to force action on a long-delayed transportation-spending package.
Washingtonians deserve a ferry system that is reliable and resilient. The governor and state legislators need to stop merely saying the right things and start doing them.