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Crew shortages bring unprecedented service cuts to Washington State Ferries

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.

This article originally appeared in The Seattle Times.

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