More than 100 ferry workers have been let go after failing to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
In August 2021, Washington State Ferry employees were informed of a proclamation issued by Gov. Jay Inslee that requires all state employees, higher education, childcare and K-12 education employees and most health and long-term care providers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 .
A total of 121 WSF employees who chose not to comply with the mandate were fired. As a result, the fleet has been reduced, creating disruptions to the schedule.
Chair of the San Juan Island Ferry Advisory Committee, Jim Corenman said, “Things will either get better or they will get worse,” of WSF’s efforts to work out the staffing issues.
On Oct. 21, the Mukilteo/Clinton ferry was delayed so much that it would have been faster to drive around to each destination rather than cut through the water. In the San Juans, the ferries are operating on a reduced, three-boat schedule, which is causing hours-long delays. On Oct. 19, the San Juans’ interisland ferry was canceled entirely.
A Chief Engineer at WSF, Craig Henriksen, is so strongly opposed to getting vaccinated that he risks suffering from paralysis. Henriksen broke his back in the 90s.
“The doctors thought I wasn’t going to walk again,” he said.
Today, Henriksen is walking but he has to make sure he routinely visits a chiropractor to stay mobile. He was one of many who was fired on Oct. 18 and now has had his healthcare revoked and fears not being able to afford chiropractor services without it.
Christopher Anderson, who had been a deckhand for WSF since 2015, said, “This all would’ve been avoidable if they granted us reasonable accommodations.”
Anderson had been approved for medical exemption from the vaccine, but WSF did not accommodate it. He said he had made it clear to WSF that he was gladly willing to do other things to protect himself and others, including wearing a mask throughout the entirety of his shift, socially distancing and getting a weekly COVID test.
“There are ways it can be accommodated but the ferries are choosing not to do that,” he said. “So now, WSF is saying that if I am unvaccinated it is still not enough for me to do those things.”
The Department of Health website has a list of ways to accommodate those who are unvaccinated, which Anderson said he checked prior to receiving his exemption.
Henriksen received a religious exemption for the vaccine.
“My coworkers called me, literally grown men on the verge of tears, saying they’re losing their job, they have a family to feed, but they have their mind made up. They’re not getting vaccinated,” he said.
During the majority of Henriksen’s shift, he does not come in close contact with others. Both Anderson and Henriksen see a bias in the HR department.
“It is a mandate, not a law,” Henriksen said. “I don’t understand how it’s got any teeth.”
Although they stand firmly with their opinions, Anderson and Henriksen expressed sadness over the ferry delays and how it is impacting stakeholders.
“I mean, you have an airport where people can fly but most people can’t afford that. And the ferries are their only option to go to medical appointments to get groceries and when they’re being stranded for hours on end at the terminals,” Anderson said. “I mean, it’s not right. And that’s not what the ferry should be about. They should be about providing dependable reliable service to everybody that depends on the extension of the state highway system.”
So far, WSF is still figuring out how to work around the new staff shortage.
“It is still unknown what the specific impacts will be, but the current reduced schedule is creating significant impacts for both residents and commercial traffic,” Corenman said. “We are very grateful and appreciative of the WSF employees- the vast majority- who have come to work and continue to provide a critical service for our county.”