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More ferry runs throughout Puget Sound region halted amid crew shortage

A ferry sails on Puget Sound
Washington State Department of Transportation
A ferry sails on Puget Sound.

Washington State Ferries warned travelers Friday that seven of its 10 routes were operating with fewer boats as chronic crew shortages suddenly worsened and left the transportation system in disarray.

The cutbacks are unprecedented in the nation’s largest ferry system, The Seattle Times reported.

Seattle routes to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, and the Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton routes, are running one boat each, half the usual capacity. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle and San Juan Islands routes are down a boat, and the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route was canceled Friday.

Several sailings have been late in what the agency called “a rough service day due to lack of crew.”

Ferries managers are planning for reduced service the next few days, spokesperson Justin Fujioka said.

The agency has struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks, an aging and retiring workforce and a general challenge in recruiting people to work in the maritime industry, officials said.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 87 documented cases of ferry workers infected with COVID-19, and 400 who have quarantined after possible exposure, Fujioka said.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 18 deadline to be vaccinated or terminated is now looming. A few dozen ferry workers have co-signed as plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit by state troopers and other workers against Inslee’s mandate.

It’s possible some workers intend to quit and are cashing in their sick days now, Fujioka said. Ferries managers are anticipating continued cutbacks this month.

“We are aware of what is coming Oct. 18,” Fujioka said. “It’s obvious this is on the verge of becoming unsustainable.”

Lisa Spesard, a notary in the San Juans, said she has taken rides on private boats recently to meet work deadlines for clients. The ferry “being inconsistently on route affects my ability to make a living,” she said.

Washington State Ferries tweeted Friday that it has brought on over 100 crew members, but “COVID-19 restrictions have not allowed us to hire or train new recruits at the same rate as prior to the pandemic.”

The agency tweeted Friday that it has shifted from once-a-year hiring to continuous recruiting and hiring in an effort to staff up amid an aging and retiring workforce.

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