Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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Staff shortages lead to ‘unprecedented’ disruptions for Washington State Ferries


ANACORTES — At the Anacortes Ferry Terminal on Saturday, the ferry M/V Samish sat at the dock. Though cars were lined up waiting to go to the San Juan Islands, the ferry did not sail.

The Samish, one of three vessels serving the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route, was taken out of service Saturday and Sunday due to the lack of a crew, leaving the route with just two boats.

Other ferry routes in the region were also operating with fewer vessels due to crew shortages, resulting in dozens of canceled sailings. On Friday, Washington State Ferries canceled 150 sailings.

“That is pretty unprecedented,” State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said Friday evening.

A total of 28 workers called in sick Friday, which Sterling said is not unusual. He said the challenge is that the system has no “bench” of subs.

“There is no one to fill in,” he said.

In the ferry line Saturday, Spokane residents Jacob Gray and Lizzie Velonza had to wait an extra two hours to sail to Friday Harbor after the 2:40 p.m. sailing was canceled. The next was not until 4:30 p.m.

They learned of the cancellation just 15 minutes before they arrived.

“I had a lot of faith in the ferry system as someone who hasn’t been in the area,” Gray said.

Meanwhile, state legislators are sounding the alarm on the ferry service disruptions.

“Washington State Ferries… is in dire straits,” wrote 40th District Democratic legislators Sen. Liz Lovelett and Reps. Debra Lekanoff and Alex Ramel in a joint statement Tuesday.

For San Juan Islands residents, who rely on ferries to get on and off the islands, disruptions are more than just an inconvenience, the legislators argued.

“This is a matter of livelihoods and whether or not people can get to doctor’s appointments, commute to work, get food for their families, and access other essential travel,” the legislators said.

There are also impacts for mainlanders, such as Skagit County businesses that rely on ferries when they need to make deliveries to the islands.

Crew shortages

A combination of factors is driving the crew shortages, say officials and ferry employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for State Ferries to train new employees as it confronts an aging workforce. COVID-19 cases and quarantining requirements have also led to staffing shortages.

Now, the ferry system is faced with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 18 deadline for all workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Sterling said 87% of roughly 1,800 employees will be eligible to work come Oct. 18. He said the group includes those who have submitted their vaccination cards or have obtained exemptions. That leaves 13% of the workforce — about 230 employees — yet to be cleared to work.

Sterling said the state has started “the separation process” for those employees who have not yet submitted verification of vaccination. The hope is that more will continue to verify their vaccinations.

“We still have time before the 18th. We don’t know what the full impact will be and how many people will choose to leave state employment,” Sterling said.

To bring more employees on board, Sterling said State Ferries has switched from seasonal hiring to continuous hiring. It has hired more than 100 new crew members this year, the agency said in a Tweet on Friday.

Sterling said a “global shortage of mariners” is affecting other maritime operators, not just State Ferries.

Some have blamed Inslee’s vaccine mandate as exacerbating the worker shortage.

But Anthony Distefano, a deckhand on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands ferry route and a union steward, said he doesn’t believe workers are staging a “sickout” in protest of Inslee’s mandate, or that many will choose to lose their jobs over taking the vaccine.

“When rubber meets the road, most people are heavily invested in the (ferry) system,” he said. “It takes a very particular type of person to destroy their family and career over a political stance. Those are in the extreme minority.”

Distefano said State Ferries was facing a worker shortage before the pandemic, with an oncoming wave of retirements.

“The vaccine mandate is an issue, but it’s only an issue because the system hasn’t been fully staffed,” he said. “If any one person doesn’t show up, that causes a cascading effect that could (cause) boats to not sail.”

Distefano said State Ferries needs to do more to recruit employees from within to fill higher level positions. He wishes to become a ferry captain, but to do so he must step away from his job as a deckhand to complete pilot training. With staffing so tight, that is a challenge.

Next steps

On Friday, Sterling said he didn’t know if the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route would stay with two boats, or go back to three.

“We are aware that is the only viable way off the islands for most people,” he said. “We’re going to prioritize service (on the route) to maintain some level of service.”

In an interview Saturday, Ramel, D-Bellingham, said reducing the route from three to two boats this weekend needed to be done.

“This gives us fewer sailings, but a greater confidence that the ferry service will be able to make its commitments,” he said.

Ramel said he disagrees with comments made by some Republican legislators blaming worker shortages on Inslee’s vaccine mandate.

“I continue to believe that there are some folks that are angry about the mandate who are pushing things to the last minute,” he said.

Ramel believes most will choose to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their co-workers, and to keep their jobs.

He said a group of legislators will meet with Inslee on Monday morning to discuss the ferry disruptions. Some ideas on the table include rehiring retired ferry workers on a temporary basis, and providing motel vouchers for San Juan Islands residents who have medical appointments on the mainland.

For ferry workers, the situation is also up in the air.

Distefano said there are concerns that if not enough employees submit verification of vaccination, there could be consequences for those workers who did get vaccinated.

He said if routes continue to operate with fewer boats, some employees may lose work.

“There are some really deep concerns about what the next steps are,” Distefano said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone planned for this, even though it was known this was going to happen. Because it happened all at once, they are still caught flat-footed.”

He blames the current crisis on a lack of funding for the ferry system.

In their Tuesday letter, the 40th District legislators also pointed to funding being an issue. As a result of not enough funding, new vessels have not yet been built to replace aging boats and the system is funded at minimum staffing levels, they wrote.

Check for updates

Ferry travel updates are available at