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Pandemic, protests, and crew shortages: No ordinary Labor Day for Washington State Ferries

Plan ahead for a busy Labor Day weekend on the ferries. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Ferries/Twitter)

Catching a ferry on Labor Day weekend has never been an easy task. It’s one of the busiest weekends of the year, but add in a pandemic, crew shortages, and a potential protest, and this Labor Day weekend on the ferry system could be much worse.

Ferry fare rates will increase 2.5% this year and next

As riders are acutely aware, a ferry doesn’t sail if it doesn’t have the required amount of people to run it. Canceled sailings have been going up over the last few years because there just aren’t enough people to staff the ferries. There is a huge global maritime worker shortage, and a lot of the workforce is aging.

Add in a pandemic where skeleton crews come down with COVID, or are put in contact tracing quarantine, and this year has been brutal.

“It’s demoralizing for our ferry crews, who have been out there every single day of the pandemic making these boats go back and forth, and it’s a big inconvenience to our customers,” said Ian Sterling, ferry system spokesperson.

There are about 450 daily sailings on the schedule, and the long-term staffing issues and COVID have really taken a toll.

“The number of roundtrip sailings that we have missed is in the neighborhood of 130-150, just since February 1, and they are accelerating,” Sterling said. “The last few weekends have been particularly painful.”

The ferry service has pre-emptively cut back the last sailings of the day on several routes this holiday weekend to keep as much crew available for the busier times of day, and Sterling said that could impact your plans.

“I wouldn’t be avoiding state ferries this weekend, but I would definitely have alternate plans,” he said.

And there are rumors flying around that some ferry workers might stage a sick-out over the holiday weekend to protest Governor Inslee’s vaccine requirement. Ferry workers have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated or face losing their jobs.

Sterling said ferry managers and the unions representing the workers believe a sick-out is illegal, and they are hoping it won’t happen.

“There are other ways you can get your viewpoints across that don’t leave your co-workers in the lurch by trying to fill your job, and inconveniencing thousands of customers, potentially,” Sterling said.  “… At this point in time, they are just rumors, and we hope that they stay that way.”

Need to know: The busiest Labor Day travel times

So if your weekend plans involve a ferry ride, you should pay close attention to the schedule and sign up for alerts from the ferry system.

And to add a little more pain into the mix, the Seattle-Bremerton run will be down to just one boat starting Tuesday. The Kaleetan is going into dry dock for scheduled maintenance and repairs.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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