Washington State Ferries is still sorting out the aftermath of the recent firings of 121 unvaccinated employees.
In the San Juans, riders have endured long wait times and overloading due to a reduced, alternate schedule.
“The situation is fluid, and yet WSF sent another ‘alternate service’ bulletin which offers no hope for improved service,” said Chair of the San Juan County Advisory Committee, Jim Corenman.
WSF Director of Communication Ian Sterling said prior to the firings they were already short-staffed.
According to Corenman, there is currently a shortage of vessel crews, including those on deck and in the engine room. He said that prior to the firings of unvaccinated WSF employees, this problem was already exacerbated by the pandemic, but now it is critical.
“This is complicated by the number of different skills and credentials required to operate the vessels,” he said. “WSF’s goal is then to restore what service they can while continuing to hire and train. WSF doesn’t yet know what that means in terms of when service can be improved or on which routes, but that will become more clear in the coming days.”
WSF was hoping to open the galleys up by the end of summer. Now being nearly November, a chance of opening the galleys soon is still out of sight.
The galleys are owned by private companies separate from WSF, said Sterling. Those businesses are also having a hard time finding employees.
“I just don’t know where all the workers went…” Sterling trailed off with a sigh.
However, Corenman described the staff shortages to be a short-term issue. The long-term issue that WSF is currently facing is a fleet that cannot realistically provide the desired level of service. WSF recently went from 24 vessels down to 21 vessels.
“The vessels are getting older without the maintenance required to keep them reliable, and the new-vessel build program is both under-funded and slipping,” Corenman said.
Sterling added, “We won’t have a new one built and completed for at least three years.”
When asked if the vessels that have been removed from the schedule due to staffing issues will come back this year, Sterling’s response was, “Yes, for sure. As soon as we can get staffed up we’ll get the boats back on the routes. And that is happening already.”
Sterling is not sure how long it will take to get enough staff to return the boats to their usual sailings. For now, the San Juans will continue with a three-boat, alternate schedule.
Sterling and the rest of WSF recognize the importance of the ferry schedule for the San Juan Islands and Vashon Island because there is no alternative way to depart or arrive unless you take a plane. They’ve been working hard to get things back on track, he said.
“The ones that are making the boats go back and forth since day one of the pandemic you know, as frontline workers, it’s, it’s a point of pride for them,” Sterling said. “So they’re trying to make every sailing that they possibly can.”
Contrary to Sterling’s optimism, Corenman expressed that the ferry updates are constantly fluctuating.
“Info that is good today may be different tomorrow,” he said.