October 12, 2021
‘Where’s the ferry?’ islanders ask as crew shortages stymie scheduled sailings
Heather Spaulding

Part of the state highway system but not taken for granted these days: Recent substantial crew shortages have resulted in cancellations of more than 50 Washington State Ferries sailings in a week in the San Juan Islands. State officials are looking for long-term solutions to serve commuters and other residents and visitors, such as those disembarking here from the MV Samish in a stop at Lopez Island. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

October 12, 2021
‘Where’s the ferry?’ islanders ask as crew shortages stymie scheduled sailings
Heather Spaulding

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Over the Oct. 9-10 weekend, about 150 Washington State Ferries (WSF) sailings were canceled Sound-wide because of crew shortages. In San Juan County, where inter- and off-island transportation is totally dependent on the state ferry system, that meant people were unable to get home, to work or to doctor appointments, and that vital supplies such as groceries were delayed. 

“[Crew shortages] have been a long-time concern,” said Jim Corenman, chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee.

Corenman has served on the committee for over a decade. He said although the MV Yakima breakdown a few years ago caused chaos with sailing delays and cancellations, the current disruption has lasted longer and is by far the worst situation he has seen. 

The situation has become so difficult of late that 40th District Reps. Alex Ramel and Debra Lekanoff and Sen. Liz Lovelett along with ferry advisory committee members and others met Monday (Oct. 11) with Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss remedies.

Ramel told the San Juan County Council today (Oct. 12) that much of Monday’s meeting was about emergency funding for San Juan County, including a voucher proposal and what that would entail. He asked the council how they thought the money should be spent.

“It is still to be determined what would be covered and where the funds would come from,” Ramel told the council, adding that it might be possible for administrative costs to be funded as the council and government staff may need to take on extra work to help the legislators. 

Harm to the community

District 1 San Juan County council member Christine Minney said her biggest concern is the effect ferry delays have on the community’s welfare. Supply issues affecting local businesses also concern her. 

“Folks are understandably angry and frustrated,” Minney said. “They are missing important appointments. Their businesses are struggling with deliveries, they have had to cancel travel plans. They aren’t getting to work. It is not a pretty landscape.”

For decades, fewer and fewer individuals have been interested in becoming mariners and working on boats, said Corenman, and available crews are reaching retirement age. Approximately 1,800 people work for WSF; about 1,200 of those on the vessels, he said. WSF officials and ferry advisory committee members have been concerned about mass retirement creating shortages.

But before the issue could be addressed systematically, COVID-19 struck.

To protect workers in the high-risk age category, Corenman said, vulnerable staff were allowed to stay home and encouraged to quarantine. The pandemic dragged on, vaccinations became available and workers were given the option to return to work or retire. Some chose retirement, others returned to work, Corenman said, but outbreaks continued to occur, causing loss of crew due to more quarantines as well as illness. 

According to Ian Sterling, WSF Information Officer, the pandemic also slowed the ability to train newly recruited mariners. Trainings and classes needed to be smaller to prevent outbreaks, and some were canceled due to outbreaks 

The mandate

On Aug. 9, Inslee announced a mandate requiring state workers to be vaccinated against COVID or to be qualified for an exemption by Oct. 18. As of Oct. 6, Corenman said approximately 200 ferry workers had yet to be vaccinated or qualified. With a week left, he noted, some of those may still become vaccinated or exempted. 

Rumors of sick-outs ran wild after the mandate, but Corenman said there is no evidence any protests occurred.

“Legally, the union is supposed to work through issues by arbitration rather than strikes,” he said. 

But Ramel said he is concerned that the rumors of state worker protests will prompt some state legislators to pressure Inslee to revoke the mandate, or will sway people reluctant to get the vaccine into believing the mandate won’t remain in effect.

“There is no evidence I have seen that Inslee will change his mind on this,” Ramel said. “It is not realistic to think otherwise. Everything I have seen shows Gov. Inslee is driven by what is best for public health. The vaccines have been proven to be safe, effective and important for friends, family and coworkers, and it’s also a requirement to keep their job.”

Even if a small portion of the 200 unvaccinated decide to lose their jobs rather than becoming vaccinated, the impact will be detrimental, Corenman warned. 

Fortitude wearing thin

Island residents, who rely on the ferries for everything from groceries to access to jobs and medical care, usually chalk up ferry delays as part of life. 

Minney said she has always viewed riding the ferry as an adventure in patience and fortitude, and she carries supplies of food, water, blankets, pillows and even battery packs to make wait times more comfortable.

County residents, however, are becoming increasingly discouraged, even angry.

Deborah Hopkins, Executive Director of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, said one lodging business owner wrote in a post-Labor Day member survey about just how the uncertainties of ferry travel due to widely publicized possible crew issues directly impacted business: “Existing reservations were cancelled … [or] shortened on short notice, both before and during the holiday period. High-potential lodging reservation inquiries were abandoned due to uncertainties about ferry travel. Certainly, many were discouraged from even attempting to make travel plans due to the uncertainties.”

Creating solutions

Corenman said the state cannot predict how many workers will or won’t return after the Oct. 18 deadline, but the short-term plan is to cut back on vessel sailings to match available crew in a way that is the least disruptive. This means San Juan County may be left with only two or three boats until additional crew can be added. 

WSF’s Sterling agreed: “We won’t know until the 18th the exact number of employees who choose to leave, but we are narrowing in as we approach the date. We are exploring contingency plans and may be forced to act in the name of reliability before the 18th. The goal is to move as many people as possible with a predictable schedule.”

Meanwhile, the agency is actively looking to hire additional workers. “We have employees work literally 24 hours a day to address staffing right now and recruitment efforts continue to be massively increased,” Sterling said. 

In order to both entice workers and keep them, Corenman suggested becoming creative. 

Ferry jobs are seasonal, with increased sailings during the peak spring and summer months and reduced sailings in the fall and winter. After mariners have completed their training and are ready to work, they get laid off for three to six months when sailings are reduced. Corenman said that ferry advisory committee members have suggested that workers who were truly interested in staying in the job should be promoted to keep them around.

Ramel said one tactic for getting through the next few months is to assess the biggest bottlenecks. For example, a lack of engine-room workers could be addressed by making it attractive for recent retirees in that area to return to work for a few months. 

To prepare for a decrease in sailings and keep schedules predictable, WSF recently announced they will release fewer reservations on the San Juan Islands route per sailing. Fewer vehicles allow more schedule flexibility when there are disruptions. 

For islanders with urgent medical or other needs, Ramel said, vouchers for hotels and or charter boats are also on the table.

“[Ferry cancellations] are an incredible inconvenience for some, but a deep disruption for others,” Ramel said. “I’m more attentive to those for whom it is a deep disruption, those who can’t get to work, or to medical appointments.” Ramel, Lekanoff and Lovelett will be seeking for emergency funding to assist with the San Juan routes. 

Walking — and gratitude

Islanders can help by walking on the ferry as much as possible, Corenman said. Ramel echoed that suggestion for visitors as well, noting that Friday Harbor is very accessible by foot. 

Corenman also advised signing up for email alerts because they are more up to date than what is posted on the website.

Be nice to the folks who do show up to work on the boats, in the terminals and behind the scenes filling empty crew slots so sailings may continue as scheduled, urged both Minney and Corenman, who pointed out “they are doing their best.” 

Corenman encourages island residents to speak with their representatives, who hold the leverage to make real change, about the importance of the ferry system.

“State legislators need to recognize that the ferry system is our road home and as such requires more attention and investment than it currently gets,” Minney said. 

Find the money

“There needs to be a hard look at the state law which requires that only Washington state businesses and labor build ferries. The transportation budget needs to allow for a more intense production of boats than the past several years, and … it seems clear that the staffing model as well as employee pay are due for an update,” Minney said.

“Remember, every decision the Washington State Ferry service makes has to do with budget,” Corenman said. 

With aging ferries and increasing ridership, Ramel said there needs to be at least a $2 billion transportation package to invest in the ferries over the next 16 years.

Despite current issues and the hefty price tag for the long term, ferries are here to stay as part of the Washington state highway system. 

“I’ve heard people panicked because they think the ferry system is going away. It isn’t going away. We are nowhere near that,” Ramel said.

In a joint statement, Ramel, Lekanoff and Lovelett wrote, “Ferries are our top priority in the transportation budget. We established a formal ferry caucus within the legislature to better organize and advocate for desperately needed funding to replace our aging fleet, minimize service disruptions and improve overall service.” (Read the full statement.)

Minney also pointed out how years of neglecting the ferry service has led to the situation today. 

“The unfortunate truth is that we are sitting on the other side of years of not being given the attention we deserve,” she said. “Perhaps this moment of very public reckoning will help the decision makers in Olympia have a change of heart.” She added that she is looking forward to actively testifying in front of the legislature on behalf of the community. 

 “It’s going to get worse, but it will get better,” Corenman said.

— Reported by Heather Spaulding

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