WSF Town Hall: Employee hires are up, and a crackdown on unruly riders takes effect

The Washington State Ferry Service held two online town hall-style meetings on Jan. 11 and 12.

Two hundred people attended the Jan. 11 meeting. Approximately a third of the participants were from San Juan County.

“Our goals this year are diversity, equity, resilience and workforce development,” Assistant Secretary of the Washington State Ferries, Patty Rubstello told the virtual crowd.

WSF usually holds four annually, two toward the first of the year, and another approximately mid-year. A panel of department heads attended, provided reports and answered questions from the audience, including Nicole McIntosh, Chief of Staff, David Sower, Director of Terminal Engineering, Steve Nevey, Director of Marine Operations, Eric Visser, Director of Vessel Engineering and Maintenance, John Vezina, Chief Revenue Officer and Todd Lamphere, Director of Finance and Administration. The meeting was mediated by Hadley Rodero, Communications Manager.

“I want to acknowledge customers are frustrated that WSF is not fully back up, but let’s take a moment and recognize crews who kept ferries going through the holidays when many transportation services were shut down,” said Rubstello before providing a recap of the ferry system data, and what had been accomplished.

Ferry ridership is up to pre-pandemic levels, carrying 17.4 million riders for a .5 percent increase over 2021. By the numbers, WSF has 20 terminals across the state, 10 routes, 21 vessels, 1,800 employees and serves eight counties.

Recruiting efforts are approaching target levels, according to Rubstello. McIntosh added new programs assisting employees with payment for trainings and streamlining the process has helped. Recently 32 new hires were trained in the same time period it took to train 16. retention may be harder than anticipated. Increased reports of customers acting misogynistic and bigoted toward employees, using sexist and racist slurs toward women and people of color make diversity difficult.

Employees in general have reported being yelled at and spit upon by ferry riders. WSF workers are not law enforcement, she added, nor did they take the job thinking law enforcement would be a part of the requirements.

In an effort to support their employees, WSF will be using local law enforcement to trespass customers more frequently. A Code of Conduct is also being rolled out, including posters, videos and announcements reminding ferry riders of appropriate behavior.

Yellow cards will also serve as a warning if they break the Code of Conduct. According to McIntosh, there have also had discussions with Black employees about any challenges they have, and how those issues might be addressed.

“The goal for diversity is very broad and includes contractors, not just immediate employees,” Rubstello added. Unconscious bias training is also part of the larger picture of creating a cultural shift amongst WSF.

“While there has been a lot of frustration, there has also been a lot of gratitude,” Vezina said, adding that the bottom line is “We can’t rebuild our workforce if they [employees] don’t feel safe.”

Lamphere reported on Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget and how it affects WSF. “The governor’s budget shows very strong support to further staffing efforts and working toward electrifying ferries,” he said, adding that the budget included 30 million for clean fuel to replace vessels and convert the Mark II’s into hybrid boats. There is also 202 million in the budget to preserve and maintain the vessels WFS currently has.

Slowly and surely routes are being restored, according to Vezina. The Anacortes-Sydney run is one of the last, if not the last be restored. No set date was given, however, it will not return before the end of June.

The San Juan – Anacortes routes were prioritized, Vezina explained, “because we understand it is their only transportation system. We put a lot of our resources into restoring these routes when others have not been. It isn’t a lack of empathy or lack of will. It’s safety. We will not, and we can’t, buckle to pressures to restore routes before we are ready and risk safety.”