Ferry service disruption expected over holiday weekend

Whispers of ferry service disruptions turned to a roar on Aug. 31, when Washington State Ferries released a travel alert warning of possible delays. On Tuesday afternoon, WSF announced it would not be accepting any new reservations through the historically busy Labor Day weekend.

“Our dispatch team is working in overdrive to staff our vessels with some crew needing to quarantine, with many crewmembers holding over and working beyond their scheduled shifts to keep our vessels in service,” said Patty Rubstello, head of WSF. “In addition, like many industries, the maritime sector, both locally and internationally, is facing a shortage of experienced employees and many marine transportation systems are dealing with a staffing shortfall. We continue to recruit new employees, but we’re struggling to find qualified mariners.”

Due to anticipated delays, WSF terminated the creation of new reservations early in the week for both the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route and the Port Townsend-Coupeville route. Expected traffic increases and a shortage of staff are rumored to be exacerbated by employees who are against Gov. Jay Inslee’s state worker vaccine mandate calling in sick in protest.

“Additionally, there are rumors circulating about a possible organized job action by some WSF employees this weekend in response to the governor’s vaccine mandate,” WSF Director of Government Relations John Vezina said in an email to Ferry Advisory Committee members. “It is clear any such action would not be legal, and [a] message from WSF management and labor leadership has been sent to all employees [Tuesday] afternoon, reinforcing that fact. Knowing that we are likely to continue facing staffing challenges this weekend, we are taking action to, if possible, lessen the impact on passengers.”

The pause on new reservations for the route will last from Sept. 3 until Sept. 6. WSF has assured those with existing reservations that those will not be affected. Additionally, Vezina noted, the pause in new reservations will “increase the reliability of existing reservations and customers reaching their destinations.”

Vezina went on to add that the WSF operations and planning teams are working on ways to maintain as much service as possible with the available crew.

“For example, while it’s important to move as many passengers as possible during the holiday weekend, we must ensure service to island communities who rely on ferries for medical and emergency services,” Vezina said.

In a newsletter from the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, the organization shared Vezina’s message to the FACs and noted that San Juan County Councilmember Cindy Wolf was speaking with other elected officials in the region. Additional information will be provided when available.

“Our vessel crews and terminals staffs have done an incredible job keeping our system running for the last 18 months, sometimes at the risk of their health,” Vezina said. “We appreciate their commitment to service, and while understanding the concern and frustration some of our colleagues feel, we also take our commitment to the public seriously. We appreciate our passenger’s understanding of our current service constraints and their planning travel plans accordingly.”