Cars line up to board a ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton on July 28. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Cars line up to board a ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton on July 28. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

A third of ferry sailings cancelled due to crew shortages

Slashed service could persist in Mukilteo, Edmonds and elsewhere. It’s unprecedented, officials said.

EDMONDS — Staffing shortages forced a drastic system-wide reduction in Washington State Ferries service Friday.

The Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton routes each were down from the usual two boats to one — effectively half the normal capacity. They are two of the busiest routes that WSF operates, spokesperson Ian Sterling said. Other routes were in a similar boat.

Crew shortages were largely caused by a “perfect storm” of workers being sick with COVID-19, in close contact with ill people or unwilling to work under the governor’s vaccine mandate, Sterling said.

Of more than 420 sailings system-wide Thursday, 35 were cancelled. That number jumped to 150 cancellations Friday — more than a third of state ferries service.

Sterling called it a “triage” scenario. Such a severe reduction is unheard of, outside of major snowstorms, he said.

In the five or six years he has worked for the ferry system, “I haven’t seen anything like this,” Sterling said. “We’re not on plan A or plan B. This is plan C or D at this point.”

Washington State Ferries reported three-hour waits for drivers catching the ferry in Edmonds on Friday afternoon. On the other side, there was a two-hour wait in Kingston. In both Mukilteo and Clinton, the delay was two hours.

The only thing blunting the impact is the time of year, because ridership falls after Labor Day.

How long will the decreased service last? WSF tweeted Friday that it’s “hard to predict what weekend service will look like.”

Sterling noted it’s hard to hire and train new staff to crew the ferries that need at least a dozen staffers per boat. WSF reported hiring over 100 new employees this year as it constantly recruits new crew members.

Meanwhile, Washington State Ferries has dealt with active COVID cases and many close contacts among staffers over the past month, straining crews, Sterling said. He added he wasn’t aware of any major outbreaks among employees. The ferry system doesn’t yet know the full effect of the state’s vaccination mandate on staffing, but it won’t be zero.

WSF is a division of the state Department of Transportation. State workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

More than two dozen ferry workers have signed onto a lawsuit in Walla Walla County Superior Court against the mandate. A few of the plaintiffs live in Snohomish County. And several WSF employees were among more than 100 workers suing the governor and state agency heads over the requirement. That lawsuit was filed in federal court this week.

Before Labor Day, it was rumored that employees opposed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate would stage a sickout that weekend, but it didn’t materialize.

The current ferries staff shortage is compounded by a simple lack of vessels to carry people, Sterling said.

Runs across the WSF system are affected by the service reduction. As in Snohomish County, the Seattle-Bainbridge Island and Seattle-Bremerton routes were down to one vessel each. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth run was a boat short, as were the San Juan Islands routes. The Point Defiance-Tahlequah route wasn’t served at all Friday.

Ferry officials hope to provide predictability, if not previous levels of service. Reduced capacity could last weeks or months, Sterling guessed.

He said WSF understands how frustrating that is, especially for those who use ferries as a frequent form of transportation.

“This is not normal times,” he said, “and people shouldn’t expect normal ferry service.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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