Dozens of runs canceled on Washington State ferry system as crew shortages worsen

By Mike Lindblom

SEATTLE — Washington State Ferries is warning travelers that seven of its 10 routes are operating with fewer boats Friday, as chronic crew shortages suddenly worsened and left a key transportation system in disarray.

The cutbacks are unprecedented in the nation’s largest ferry system.

Seattle routes to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, and the Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton routes, are all down to one boat each, half the usual capacity. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle and San Juan Islands routes are a boat short, and the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route is canceled Friday.

Drivers were already facing delays of three hours to catch a ferry at Mukilteo and two hours at Edmonds at noontime, according to WSF e-mailed updates.

Several sailings have been late in what the agency called “a rough service day due to lack of crew.”

Ferries managers are already drawing up plans for reduced service the next few days, said spokesperson Justin Fujioka.

So far, the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle will have two boats instead of three all weekend, and the San Juans routes will have three boats instead of four, he said.

WSF has struggled with late-summer COVID-19 outbreaks among maintenance and engine-room staff, as well as rumors of sickouts or refusal to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandates.

The agency hasn’t heard of any specific or organized sickouts, but one factor is the governor’s looming Oct. 18 deadline to be vaccinated or terminated, ferries spokesperson Justin Fujioka said. Related to that, it’s possible some workers intend to quit and are cashing in their sick days now, he said.

A few dozen ferry workers have co-signed as plaintiffs, in the lawsuit by state troopers and other workers against Inslee’s mandate. The case is pending in Walla Walla County Superior Court.

Ferries managers are anticipating continued cutbacks this month.

“We are aware of what is coming Oct. 18,” Fujioka said. “It’s obvious this is on the verge of becoming unsustainable — the crewing we already have.”

People in island and peninsula communities have been worrying Friday about how ambulances and other emergency trips will be affected.

Lisa Spesard, a notary in the San Juans, said she’s resorted to rides on private boats this fall, to meet work deadlines for clients. “Someone was going to Friday Harbor for gas, and said the boat is small right now, dress for all weather. He was dropping crab pots on the way!” she said. Another time, she rode with a charter and paid more than $100, she said. The ferry “being inconsistently on route affects my ability to make a living,” she said.

Despite shortages, Ferries managers and unions managed to fully staff all available boats on the busy Labor Day weekend, when there were zero cancellations. Conditions worsened a week ago, when a Bainbridge boat was diverted to cover a gap on the Bremerton route, rather than strand Mariners baseball fans late last Friday night.

The ferry system’s problems go beyond the pandemic, to include an engine fire this spring that disabled the M/V Wenatchee, an antiquated on-call system where dispatchers phone workers at the last minute to fill shifts, and too few employees.

Since the pandemic arrived in March 2020, there were 87 documented cases of ferry workers infected with coronavirus, and 400 who have quarantined after possible exposure, Fujioka said. Those figures include viral spread either on or off-work.

WSF did tweet Friday morning that it has brought on more than 100 crew members in 2021, but “COVID-19 restrictions have not allowed us to hire or train new recruits at the same rate as prior to the pandemic.”

Ferries hiring has been extended from spring-only recruitment, to year-round. However, newcomers are arriving slower than current workers age out, or leave the system, Fujioka said.

Crew and boat shortages persist even though there’s no international service currently between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C. The state has given no return date yet for the damaged ferry Wenatchee.

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