Washington ferry cancellations go ‘beyond COVID’: Report highlights systemic staffing issues

Jan 25, 2022, 5:28 AM
Wishkah ferry...
Washington's first hybrid-electric ferry, Wishkah. (Washington State Ferries, Twitter)
(Washington State Ferries, Twitter)

Last week, the Washington State Ferries (WSF) announced that “most” of their routes were placed on reduced, alternate schedules, citing crew shortages brought on by the pandemic and a “global shortage of mariners.”

The problem is a persistent one as funding and labor shortages have been a recurring issue for the ferry system for decades.

Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 from 1999 cut the state’s ability to impose local motor vehicle excise taxes —car tabs — which funded passenger-only ferries. While the Washington Supreme Court would later overturn that initiative, the Seattle Times attributes that tax cut to a decade-long delay in ferry construction, with the beginning of a newly constructed fleet only ready to sail in 2024.

The Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) will look to appropriate more funds to Washington ferries this session. However, ferry cancellations are the result of more than just a lack of money.

The JTC has commissioned a series of reports under a “workforce plan” to identify why the ferries experience staffing shortages and solutions therein. The first of which, an overtime report analysis, was published in recent weeks. It outlines a number of contributing factors to the staffing shortage.

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

According to that report, ferry cancellations relate to fickle scheduling and a staffing model that dissuades prospective crewmembers.

“All Deck and Engine crew are hired as on-call Ordinary Sailors or Oilers,” the report reads. “The volatile hours and pay make on-call positions unattractive to potential applicants and inaccessible to many.”

“Employees remain in on-call positions until a permanent position opens, typically long after they have exited the probationary period, often years.”

New crew members are considered probationary for the first 1,040 hours of employment. During that time, they are on call until a permanent position becomes available, and sometimes even beyond.

“I think we’re going to need to look at the the staffing model that the ferry system has to make it a more attractive place to work,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in an October news conference.

“To change that staffing model takes additional dollars, and the Legislature is going to need to help solve that problem to make it a more attractive place to come to work,” Inslee continued. “That has been a long standing challenge.”

The JTC report makes preliminary recommendations to address these problems — a number of which have to do with improving community outreach to increase the number of new-hires. Some of the Legislature’s solutions are more stringent.

House Bill 1608 takes a step beyond improving access to education and hiring by removing or amending collective bargaining agreements with Washington State Ferries.

“In light of the state ferry’s desire to hire and retain a more diverse workforce, it is critical that collective bargaining agreements be reviewed through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the draft bill reads. “Some provisions in existing collective bargaining agreements may unintentionally create barriers to hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce. It is necessary for such provisions to be removed or amended.”

Three weeks into the Legislature’s 2022 session, the Republican-sponsored bill has not received a hearing, and one has not been scheduled as of Jan. 24.

“There have been several proposals ,” Rep. Andrew Barkis (Republican, 2nd District) told MyNorthwest. “There are several things addressing workforce development, requests for overtime, a multitude of things. Most of the items are on hold. … We will be taking some actions because of the ongoing problem [with] workforce development.”

“The ferries are an aging workforce with a complicated workforce structure,” Barkis continued. “They had not done a good job with their planning for workforce development. We are starting to get more detail on where the work needs to be focused, and now we can focus the resources on the accountability measures for the ferry system to deliver, which they will need to do. They are facing a situation that goes beyond COVID.”

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Washington ferry cancellations go ‘beyond COVID’: Report highlights systemic staffing issues