A chronic crew shortage at Washington State Ferries suddenly became a transportation debacle Friday, when the nation’s largest ferry system was forced to reduce service on seven of its 10 routes, while preparing for weeks of missed trips and frustrated passengers.
Approximately 140 sailings were canceled Friday, and several were late, in what the agency called “a rough service day due to lack of crew.”
Reductions this dire are unprecedented for WSF, which serves as many as 24 million passengers a year. Though summer tourism peaks have passed, travelers waited three hours for a ferry at the Edmonds dock Friday, and two hours in Mukilteo as of midday.
Ferry staffing levels, precarious from local and worldwide shortages of mariners, suddenly collapsed, as dispatchers were unable to fill open job shifts. On any given day, about 600 workers are on duty running the vessels, among a total operating workforce near 1,600.
On Friday, 28 people called in sick, with 202 people total from that workforce unavailable because of vacation, family leave, medical appointments or training. Those aren’t extreme numbers, ferries spokesperson Justin Fujioka said. What changed this week was a lack of people accepting fill-in assignments.
“Our dispatch team has been having an increasingly difficult time finding available employees to fill in for positions, as many of them have been working overtime,” Fujioka said. Some 530 shifts in September were covered on overtime, compared to 332 a year ago, he said.
Another factor may be Gov. Jay Inslee’s deadline of Oct. 18 for state workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or risk losing their jobs. Rumors have circulated for weeks of sickouts, or a wave of people preparing to quit soon.
“We are aware of what is coming Oct. 18,” Fujioka said. “It’s obvious this is on the verge of becoming unsustainable — the crewing we already have.”
On Friday, the Seattle routes to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, and the Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton routes, were all down to one boat each, half the usual capacity. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle and San Juan Islands routes were a boat short. The Point Defiance-Tahlequah route was canceled most of Friday, to resume at 6:30 p.m., a late rider alert said.
Ferries managers were planning reduced trips this weekend. For instance, the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle will have two boats instead of three all weekend, and the San Juans routes will have three boats instead of four, according to WSF.
However, normal two-boat service will return to the Mukilteo-Clinton and Seattle-Bainbridge routes Saturday, rider alerts said Friday night.
Inslee said he is looking for both short- and long-term solutions to the crew shortage, to possibly include a ferries budget increase.
“Like other Washingtonians, I am concerned with the lack of crewing on our state ferry vessels and the subsequent missed sailings,” Inslee said in an email late Friday.
“It’s unacceptable that these unauthorized actions are impacting people’s daily life when ferry service is reduced,” Inslee wrote. The term “unauthorized actions” refers to any misuse of personal leave, an Inslee spokesperson said.
“The reality is,” Inslee continued, “the majority of ferry workers are showing up day in and day out to provide the necessary ferry service to Washingtonians and visitors. We appreciate the commitment of these employees.”
Amy Scarton, deputy secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation, mentioned two more obscure issues in discussing the crew shortage. October is commonly a popular vacation time that ferry workers reserve in advance; and Friday was the end of a two-week scheduling cycle when staffing is usually tougher than at the start, she said.
Scarton hopes for a recovery after this weekend, but anticipates something like a “snow route,” where communities keep their ferry connections but with fewer trips.
WSF struggled with late-summer COVID-19 outbreaks among maintenance and engine-room staff. However, as of Friday some 87% of ferry employees had shown proof of vaccination, according to Lars Erickson, communications director for WSDOT.
Ferry managers haven’t heard of specific or organized sickouts, Fujioka said. Related to that, it’s possible some workers intend to quit and are cashing in their sick days now, he said.
Ferry and union leaders are negotiating how to make the dispatch system more flexible, so that crew on a tied-up boat can quickly fill gaps somewhere else, said Capt. Dan Twohig, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.
For instance, if five people work in the engine room and one calls in sick, how fast can the other four change boats, given a variety of contractual seniority and mileage rules. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Hey, go there,’ ” said Twohig.
House Republicans blamed Inslee, a Democrat, for making staff shortages worse with his vaccination mandate, at the risk of jeopardizing safety for ferry-dependent communities.
“The governor has created a state of emergency, within a state of emergency,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee.
A few dozen ferry workers co-signed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit by state troopers and other workers against Inslee’s vaccine mandate. The case is pending in Walla Walla County Superior Court.
Barkis said ferry cancellations are the bow wave of crises to come in government services as some workers recoil against mandates. He points to Seattle where 292 police haven’t submitted vaccination proof. However, compliance by state troopers has reached a reported 93%.
On that note, Inslee’s statement Friday said: “State services will continue, with or without those who would refuse a safe and effective vaccination against COVID that protects them and the people we serve.”
People in island and peninsula communities worry about how ambulances and other emergency trips will be affected.
Lisa Spesard, a notary in the San Juans, said she has resorted to rides on private boats this fall to meet work deadlines for clients. “Someone was going to Friday Harbor for gas, and said the boat is small right now, dress for all weather. He was dropping crab pots on the way!” she said. Another time, she rode with a charter and paid more than $100, she said.
David Cole, an architect living in Bremerton, said that, a few weeks ago, he was stuck two hours by a sudden ferry cancellation in Seattle, and Kitsap Transit fast ferries often miss trips too.
“WSF service has become so unreliable that I almost always bring my car with me now to avoid the possibility of being stranded in the city overnight,” Cole said. Ferries managers and unions managed to fully staff all available boats on the busy Labor Day weekend, when there were zero cancellations. Service continued despite a record 91 time-off requests, and five documented COVID-19 cases in the workplace during mid-August.
Conditions worsened a week ago, when a Bainbridge boat was diverted to cover a gap on the Bremerton route rather than strand Mariners baseball fans late last Friday night.
The ferry system’s problems go beyond the pandemic to include an engine fire this spring that disabled the M/V Wenatchee, an antiquated on-call system where dispatchers phone workers at the last minute to fill shifts, an aging workforce and too few employees.
“The unions, and me in particular, have been telling them since 2012 that this day was coming,” said Twohig.
As for Friday, he said, only one person called in sick among his bargaining unit, which represents deck officers who navigate the vessels.
Since the coronavirus reached the shores of Puget Sound in 2020, there were 87 documented cases of ferry workers infected with coronavirus, and 400 who have quarantined after possible exposure, Fujioka said. Those figures include viral spread either on or off work.
Ferries hiring has been extended from spring-only recruitment to year-round. However, newcomers are arriving slower than current workers age out or leave the system, Fujioka said.
WSF tweeted Friday morning that it has brought on more than 100 crew members in 2021, but “COVID-19 restrictions have not allowed us to hire or train new recruits at the same rate as prior to the pandemic.”
Crew and boat shortages persist even though there’s no international service currently between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C. The state has given no return date yet for the damaged ferry Wenatchee.
State lawmakers commissioned a $400,000 study, due in January, to solve crew shortages, an effort that may lead to budget shuffling or a piece of future tax hikes.
“If there are brand new ideas, to be a more attractive entry level job, we are all ears,” Scarton said.