Absent workers forcing ferries to cancel sailings

MUKILTEO — Two ferry sailings — one at 6 a.m. from Clinton, one at 6:30 a.m. from Mukilteo — on Wednesday were canceled because of a crew shortage.

“It would be nice to know the entire story of why I personally have been late to work three times in the last couple of weeks because of late or not running boats,” Scott Anderson of Clinton said in an email to The Herald.

As a cost-saving measure, the ferry system in June cut back the number of staff on some boats to the minimum recommended for safety by the U.S. Coast Guard, ferry system chief David Moseley said.

Even though it amounts to a reduction of only one employee per boat — in most cases, from 11 to 10 — this has left no margin for error when even one worker doesn’t get to the boat for one reason or another and it’s too late to find an on-call replacement.

Altogether, 37 sailings were canceled in the summer season because of crew shortages, compared to four during the summer of 2011, he said. Since the end of the summer season in September, the problem has forced 14 more cancellations, Moseley said.

Since June, the cancellations included six on the Mukilteo-Clinton route and six on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, he said. None have occurred on Edmonds-Kingston route.

On Wednesday, an employee thought he was off for the day when in fact his vacation didn’t begin until today, Moseley said.

The absences have fallen into three categories, he said: those such as Wednesday’s, through errors of omission including oversleeping; employees calling in sick or reporting a family emergency; and mix-ups by dispatchers.

Ferry officials have discussed the problem with the ferry employees union, the Seattle chapter of the Inland Boatmen’s Union. They’re cooperating to encourage employees to provide as much warning as they can if they can’t make it to work to give the ferry system time to round up a replacement, officials said.

“We don’t want boats not to sail and passengers not to get where they want to go,” said Jay Ubelhart, business agent for the Inland Boatmen’s Union.

Moseley said in 2010, the ferry system enlisted a peer review panel of representatives of other ferry systems around the nation to provide input on how to cut costs. Representatives from some of the other ferry systems, such as in New York and Massachusetts, said they use the Coast Guard-mandated minimum number of employees and suggested Washington State Ferries do the same, Moseley said.

He said the reductions were made in three of the four ferry classes, with the jumbo class, which includes boats on the Edmonds-Kingston run, being the exception. Some employees were reduced from permanent status to on-call but none has been laid off, he said.

Moseley said the ferry system and union agreed to let the Coast Guard review the standards and that both sides would abide by the recommendation.

Ubelhart said the union agreed against its will, only after losing an appeal in arbitration.

“We fought it and lost. We are living with the consequences,” he said. “Now if one person doesn’t show up, the vessel can’t sail. On many of the vessels the margin of error has been taken away. We feel the employee levels (previously) in the contract added to the safety of the passengers and the crew and it certainly helped with on-time reliability.”

To be thorough, Moseley said the ferry system asked union officials if any of the employees had called in sick on purpose, to make a statement.

“We had a conversation and they say absolutely not and I take them at their word,” he said.

“There certainly is no job action,” Ubelhart said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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