Forecasted ferry disruptions begin

A week after rumors of a coordinated ‘sickout’ by Washington State Ferries employees, the ferries in the San Juans slowed to a crawl. On the evening of Sept. 10, cancellations due to lack of Coast Gaurd certified crew began to trickle in. By that night, it had snowballed.

“Please know that the problem-solvers at WSF have been working their tails off to get information out. Things changed fast for them tonight,” San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee member Justin Paulsen published in various Facebook groups at almost 11 p.m. on the night of Sept. 10. “In my opinion[,] they did a masterful job of figuring out how to get a ton of people moved tonight with VERY limited resources.”

Paulsen explained in his post that he, WSF Director of Government Relations John Vezina, FAC Chairman Jim Correnman and San Juan County Council had been discussing the issue for four hours by the time he wrote his statement.

Whispers of ferry service disruptions turned to a roar on Aug. 31 when Washington State Ferries released a travel alert warning of possible delays.

“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.”

As with the previous weekend, WSF ceased the creation of new reservations. The Samish was pulled first — due to lack of crew. By the afternoon of Sept. 11, all four vessels had been benched for a few sailings at a time at least once, according to WSF alerts.

Paulsen pleaded with islanders to just stay home this weekend and avoid ferry travel, if possible.

“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,” Vezina said in an email to Ferry Advisory Committee members prior to Labor Day weekend. “It is clear any such action would not be legal, and the attached 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.”

Over the Labor Day weekend, expected traffic increases and a shortage of staff was rumored to be exacerbated by employees who are against Gov. Jay Inslee’s state worker vaccine mandate calling in sick in protest.

“It is clear that tonight’s issue is the product, in part, of a worker action. That said, it seems quite probable that there will be continued actions,” Paulsen warned. “Also, that there will be increased absences due to Covid for the foreseeable future. October 18th could be a very [devastating] day for crewing.”

Oct. 18 is the deadline by which all Washington state employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk possible termination. The date employees would have needed to receive their first vaccine — Sept. 4 — has come and gone.

Paulsen encouraged WSF to sacrifice the Tillicum, the inter-island vessel, to provide more reliable service to the mainland.

“That was already their plan,” he continued, “but I believe that that would be the desire of island residents as well as a first step.”

However, by 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, the Tillicum had also been docked due to a lack of crew, according to an alert from WSF.

Paulsen thanked the islands’ emergency medical service teams for assisting stranded passengers. He also thanked San Juan County Department of Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan for his work in alleviating and coordinating at the county level.

“A vast majority of WSF employees are on the job, working and doing what needs to be done to keep us going,” Paulsen said. “Remember to thank them as you are traveling. They are keeping us supplied.”

An organization with approximately 2,000 employees, WSF is the only way to and from the San Juan Islands for many residents.

“For at least the next [five] weeks (possibly more). It is imperative that if you have critical, necessary medical or other travel needs that you DO NOT count on ferry service to be regular or normal. I repeat… DO NOT COUNT ON THE FERRY SCHEDULE!” Paulsen wrote. “WSF is committed to giving us as much service as possible, but tonight they had to tie up [six] boats,” Justin wrote the night of Sept. 10. “One more[,] and a route somewhere in Washington would have shut down.”

Paulsen suggested that if anyone must travel off-island for any reason, they should leave a day prior to their scheduled event. He said to expect delays upon return. Additional suggestions include having a blanket and food in your vehicle in case you’re stuck there for a long period of time.

While it may sound like an overreaction the islands were actually very lucky on Sept. 10, Paulsen noted. He added that WSF is committed to providing the islands as much service as possible.

“This is our new reality. Argue about vaccines all you want, that is really only a small part of the issue. WSF needs funding to build back from the staffing and time losses that [COVID] has presented. If all of this pisses you off, get on the horn to [your] representatives and let them know that your life, health and prosperity are being impacted,” Paulsen wrote. “Without us being loud, we are real easy to ignore. Stay home this weekend, be kind to your local ferry workers and Go Hawks!”