As staffing woes plague Washington State Ferries, what can be done to right the ship? – Kitsap Sun

Asked about ongoing Washington State Ferries woes on Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he thought state officials would need to look at the agency’s staffing model to make it a more attractive place to work.
In the latest sign of the agency’s struggles, the ferry system announced on Wednesday a swath of service cuts that would leave only one boat on both the Bainbridge Island-Seattle and Kingston-Edmonds crossings, and only two boats on the Southworth-Vashon Island-Fauntleroy route, which usually operates with three vessels.
The Bremerton-Seattle run has already been running with just one boat. Other routes in the system would also see reduced service. The cuts would go into effect Saturday, the agency said, pointing to staffing issues.
“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 said. “That has been a longstanding challenge for the boats. The ferry system did make a decision (to cut back service), because we had problems the last two weekends. We believe that some of the problem were people who wanted to demonstrate their displeasure with (the state’s vaccination) requirement, and so they were unwilling to come to work those two weekends. We didn’t want that to happen again this weekend, so the ferries made a schedule change temporarily, and I believe it will improve over time.”
In an email to the Kitsap Sun, Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Inslee, said consideration of the agency’s staffing model “includes things like how to better attract entry level workers, how to better retain employees and provide opportunities for internal promotions as well as looking at the implications of funding the ferry system at minimal Coast Guard required crewing levels as well as the seasonality of hiring employees. It’s important to note that Ferries is actively recruiting for positions right now.”
Inslee is considering a variety of options for the upcoming 2022 supplemental budget, Faulk said, though specifics of the proposals were not available.
Federal help coming:Relief funds will flow to Washington State Ferries, Kitsap Transit
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that Inslee’s office and WSF have committed to providing a short-term staffing plan after the Oct. 18 vaccination deadline.
When the new legislative session begins in January, “We will certainly be working with the governor’s office on lessons learned and we’ll see what role we need to play and what changes we need to make in January,” she said. “In the meantime, this doesn’t need to drag out until January.”
Much of the situation can be addressed administratively, she said, pointing to an “on-call” requirement for entry-level ferry employees: “That’s a management issue, not something the Legislature should have to write a law that micromanages a union contract.”
“This issue with the labor shortage is not necessarily a funding issue, it’s a management issue,” she said. “We’ve asked for a plan, and I know they’re working on one, because nobody likes the situation.”
Said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch: “It’s time for our Legislature to get together, we’ve got a loosely organized ferry caucus, and when get back in Olympia here soon I think this ought to be one of the top issues that we deal with.”
“I think we have to address things on personnel, and I think management has to do that,” he said. “The governor picks the Department of Transportation secretary and the ferry system director, these people ought to be making some big changes along with the Legislature.”
The agency has pointed to a handful of contributing factors to its staffing woes: a shortage of mariners exacerbated by the pandemic, an aging workforce, COVID-19 cases and quarantines, difficulty filling positions on recent weekends and vaccination validation.
While the “vast majority” of WSF employees have completed the validation process for state employees, “Some may choose to separate from state service,” WSF spokesman Ian Sterling said in a statement. Out of about 1,900 WSF employees, roughly 200 have not validated their vaccination status, Sterling said Friday.
Sterling said the agency is working on a comprehensive plan to address staffing and in the meantime has moved away from hiring seasonally to “continuously” hiring.
The schedule changes, he said, were being implemented to give customers as much reliability as possible and to minimize unplanned canceled sailings: “The temporary schedule maintains service on all routes currently operating while reducing the number of boats on most routes. As crews become available to staff boats, WSF will supplement service when possible.”
Though the agency has described the service cuts as “temporary,” it’s not clear when a full schedule will be brought back.
Said Sterling: “It may be less service, but we hope it’s service people can depend on.”
Nathan Pilling is a reporter covering Bainbridge Island, North Kitsap and Washington State Ferries for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-5242, [email protected] or on Twitter at @KSNatePilling.
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