Staffing shortages continue to plague Washington State Ferries, much like with many industries across the country. The ferry system canceled 215 sailings system-wide in December just due to crew shortages.
That follows months of similar cancellations, including almost 350 canceled sailings in October.
Between March and December 2021, the ferry system canceled about 1,017 sailings for crew shortages, compared to 519 cancellations for vessel breakdowns or maintenance and 243 cancellations for weather.
Ferries Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh joined other Ferries leaders at a virtual community meeting Jan. 5 to talk about the state of the ferry system as it leaves 2021 and prepares for 2022.
About 31% of the attendees at that meeting were from the Anacortes and San Juan Islands area. More community members joined another meeting with the information Tuesday afternoon.
Patty Rubstello, Washington State Ferries assistant secretary, talked about the difficulties the ferry system faced, similar to other agencies. As the pandemic entered its second year, staffing shortages hit hard as COVID-19 interfered with scheduling, and stress and strain affected employees. That was in addition to a global shortage of qualified mariners in the industry.
The ferry system was barely getting by before the pandemic, Rubstello said.
A vaccine requirement from the state did cause some members of the team to leave, but even without that, there would be major shortages now, Rubstello said. About 130 people left the ferry system after the vaccination requirement went into effect. Things were tight before the omicron surge.
That has led to more strict mask guidance on board, McIntosh said.
As of last week, the system increased guidance. Employees must now wear masks everywhere while working. All passengers must also wear a mask while in all ferry properties, including terminals and vessels.
There are also good things happening in 2021, she said. The ferry system celebrated its 70th year of being part of the state’s highway system. Crews saved the lives of seven people on board and provided emergency help to more than 20 others. They also took part in hundreds of medical transports as people on the islands sought health care.
Crews reported 189 whale sightings, providing a way for other vessels to travel more safely around the in-water creatures, Rubstello said.
Ridership is continuing to climb over early 2020, though it still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic numbers, Rubstello said. About 17 million people rode the ferries last year, compared to about 24 million in 2019 and 14 million in 2020.
How they are riding is also different, she said.
For the first time since the early 1970s, the last two years have had more vehicles than pedestrian or bicycle passengers on board.
To continue serving more people and keep up with demand, new vessels will be needed, Rubstello said. Right now, the fleet has 21 vessels, leaving little for backup.
Even with ridership down and vessels aging, the biggest problem remains staffing.
Most crew shortages are in the engine room, Rubstello said.
The system is making changes and figuring out ways to battle against shortages, McIntosh said.
Washington State Ferries now hires year-round to fill its positions. It used to hire and train only in the winter to have a new set of employees ready for the summer season.
The governor also set aside money to help with crewing, said Ferries Director of Finance and Administration Rick Singer.
The governor’s budget proposal includes $40 million to attract and retain employees to work for the ferry system. That means beefing up recruitment and getting the word out to maritime academies across the country that the ferry system has great jobs, Singer said. It will also help the system connect with students all over Washington who may want a career in the maritime industry.
It also would help fund more employees. Even before the pandemic, the ferry system vessels are crewed at a minimum. So if one person is late for work or can’t make it, the vessel doesn’t sail. Having more people would increase route reliability, Singer said.
Money could also go to pre-apprenticeship programs that help employees learn and move up the ladder, to help fill gaps as highly skilled people leave, Singer said.
Steven Nevey, the ferries director of operations, said it’s not about hiring their way out of this problem. The system could go hire 500 people off the street, train them in a month and get them in entry-level positions, he said. That would help, but wouldn’t take the problem away.
The need is for a robust pipeline from those entry-level positions up to more skilled personnel like captains. Those positions are harder to keep filled, he said.
More proposed state ferry funding includes $324 million over three years to fully fund two 144-car hybrid-electric ferries, convert another ferry to hybrid-electric and add ferry charging infrastructure at three terminals.
It also includes $14.1 million to help fund needed technological improvements, Singer said.
All of this money is proposed, but it has to get approved by the legislative process and signed by the governor, Singer said.
The ferry system also received about $200 million in federal relief funding. That funding goes to help with loss of revenue, he said.