Gregoire on canceled ferry sailings: ‘Go to work’

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire expressed concern Thursday about a surge in scrubbed sailings of state ferries because of absent workers and said employees will face discipline if their failure to show up is intentional.

Gregoire also said she’s directed the head of Washington State Ferries to update her weekly on any cancellations and their cause.

“When we decide we want to be public servants, we serve,” she told reporters. “Go to work. You owe it to the public.”

Ferry officials canceled 37 sailings in the summer season, June 17 to Sept. 22. Since then, 15 more trips have been scuttled, including two Wednesday morning on the Mukilteo-Clinton route.

David Moseley, assistant secretary of transportation in charge of the state ferry system, said Thursday each of the 52 cancellations has been investigated.

“We have applied progressive discipline” where appropriate, he said.

Punishments can range from verbal and written warnings to firing. Moseley would not disclose the number of workers punished or the nature of their punishment, including whether anyone was fired.

In the meantime, Moseley and Dennis Conklin, regional director of the Inlandboatmen’s Union which represents roughly 900 ferry workers, discussed the matter in a letter to ferry employees earlier this week.

“We wanted to communicate that this is an issue that management and labor leadership are in agreement on,” Moseley said. “We need people to show up and we need them to be diligent about it.”

Statistically, cancellations amount to a fraction of the sailings; the 37 scrubbed in the summer were out of roughly 50,000, Moseley said.

Since June, there have been six sailings canceled on the Mukilteo-Clinton route and six on the Port Townsend- Coupeville route, he said. None have occurred on Edmonds-Kingston route, according to Moseley.

But every one inconveniences hundreds of people, who are both customers and taxpayers.

“As they should, our customers have high expectations for the reliability of our service. When we miss a sailing it disrupts the lives of the customers we serve and those who depend on us,” Moseley and Conklin wrote.

Eric Hopkins, of Greenbank, who rides the Clinton-Mukilteo route daily, said Thursday he’s noticed the ferry had been suspended a couple of times recently though it hasn’t affected his travels because he builds in extra time for possible delays.

“I always come one boat early in case this happens to me,” Hopkins said. “I learn to put up with the ferry system.”

Freeland resident Rachel Roetman holds the people in charge of staffing responsible.

“They need to make sure there are enough employees on hand when people get sick,” she said.

She said she uses the ferry about three times a month and has not suffered any service disruption.

“I would be mad if had happened to me,” she said.

In their letter, Moseley and Conklin reminded workers to set their alarm clock, record their dispatched assignment, confirm their requested time off and notify dispatch if they become ill or must attend to a family member and can’t make it in.

“There are varied reasons” for what’s occurred, said Jay Ubelhart, business agent of the Inlandboatmen’s Union. “None of us are happy there are missed sailings.”

Ubelhart said the state’s decision to cut back the number of staff on some vessels to the minimum recommended for safety by the U.S. Coast Guard is a factor.

That decision took effect June 17 — the start of the summer season — and applies to crews on three classes of boats, including those used on the Mukilteo-Clinton route. It called for a reduction of one employee per boat, most often going from 11 to 10.

What it means is if one worker doesn’t arrive on time or if his or her absence is learned too late to summon an on-call replacement, a sailing is canceled. That’s what happened Wednesday in Mukilteo and Clinton because an employee thought he was off for the day when in fact his vacation didn’t begin until Thursday.

IBU members opposed the change in June and warned a spurt of cancellations could result. They’re annoyed, Ubelhart said, at the insinuation the absences are intentional to protest the decision.

“It is not an organized action in any way, shape or form. It is the foreseeable consequence of cutting the margin of error,” Ubelhart said. “If you cut the crew to the bare legal minimum, the vessel can’t sail.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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