LOCAL NEWS

With WA state’s ferries in a ‘critical situation,’ solutions are months, years to come

Oct 8, 2021, 2:44 PM | Updated: Oct 9, 2021, 8:56 am
Washington ferries...
(Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

As of Friday morning, the Washington State Ferry System had canceled 141 total sailings in what the Joint Transportation Committee’s (JTC) ranking House Republican Andrew Barkis called a “critical situation.”

The cancellations have exposed a ferry system that has struggled with staffing issues for years, something which has only been compounded by recent vaccine mandates set to take effect Oct. 18.

“They do not have the staff to run the system as designed,” Barkis told MyNorthwest. “What you see today is the direct result of the mandates, people refusing to show up to work. Whether this is a protest, whether it is a taste of what’s to come here in the next week, this is very concerning. “

Rep. Barkis (R-Olympia) is leading the charge to better understand what has gone wrong with Washington’s ferry system, and what can be done about it.

The staffing issue is largely the result of the complex way in which the ferry system is structured. Most of its positions are scrutinized by the Coast Guard and organized labor safety requirements that constrict the flexibility of its staffing model.

This was the problem identified by the JTC by way of a study that was commissioned by the legislature, even before the pandemic further complicated the ferry system’s staffing crisis.

The consultant hired to conduct the study, Seattle Jobs Initiative, is tasked with producing two reports. One, due to the legislature on Jan. 1, 2022, will provide recommendations on short-term solutions to resolve its budgetary problems, something that’s been exasperated by overtime paid to the few ferry employees with the requisite training to fill vacancies brought on by attrition. The other, due Dec. 20, 2022, will be a more holistic look at meeting the ferry’s various labor demands.

“Our goal was to look at the ferry system holistically,” Barkis told MyNorthwest. “How do we hire people, how do we get them trained, what are our costs going to be, how do we deal with attrition, how do we deal with a changing labor market in terms of finding people who are willing to do these jobs.”

“You know, all the challenges that we see in our labor systems today, the ferries are a microcosm of that. This study is looking into everything: the classifications, the impact of the collective bargaining agreements, … what we call the pipeline (the education and training that is available), it’s looking into equity and underserved communities who are not traditionally a part of this workforce.”

The consultant will likely recommend that the legislature better fund education systems to provide the ferries with the high skilled laborers it requires. It will also examine the collective bargaining agreements that the 12 organized labor unions have made with Washington State Ferries on behalf of its more than 2,000 employees.

“Specifically, looking at cross employment opportunities [within the collective bargaining agreements], Barkis said on the topic. “Is there training available to promote employment across different organizations?”

Rep. Barkis is adamant that the COVID vaccine mandates are a leading contributing factor in the ongoing ferry staff shortages.

‘Never have I seen anything like this’: Staffing shortages cancel over 140 ferry sailings on Friday

“The overarching effect of the mandate is quantitative,” Barkis continued. “If with this mandate you have 20 of 30 that refuse to get the vaccine and are fired, you have 20 less people who are willing to fill those jobs, people who you can’t replace.”

Ryan Brazeau with Inland Boatmen’s Union contends that recent shortages are not being driven by the vaccine mandate, though, telling KIRO Radio that of their 1,000 deckhands, just 40 have not revealed their vaccination status.

“I think it’d be shocking to everyone if people gave up these jobs,” Brazeau said. “They’re great jobs, they’d be giving up a pension, a retirement, and all that comes with it.”

Brazeau further noted that the majority of deckhands want to work, and have been putting in overtime to help out.

Barkis is calling on the governor to take additional actions as a direct result of Friday’s cancellations. Barkis contends that Gov. Inslee has historically dismissed the issue as one which is consistent with normal staffing attrition.

“I would think that, based on today’s outcomes and the critical nature of the impact of this, I would imagine that the majority would take some action to the governor, and he will need to respond,” Barkis proposed.

“He cannot respond in the same manner he did a few days ago where he basically said, ‘It’s no big deal. We always have about 10% attrition each year, and we will just hire new people.’”

“This system is a lifeline for people who live on the islands,” Barkis offered. “Both from a daily perspective, to all the medical issues, to all the different things that come into play. This is a critical situation. A couple of cancellations a day might be par for the course. But to have a hundred plus cancellations in a day, cancellations that will carry into this weekend and potentially next week? It is extremely disruptive. I would imagine that there will be some call to action, from the four corners to the governor, to take action on this.”

The Joint Transportation Committee last met in September to review its study into Washington’s ferries. The consultant’s preliminary report is scheduled for submission in January 2022.

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With WA state’s ferries in a ‘critical situation,’ solutions are months, years to come