Washington Ferries won’t rehire unvaxxed workers amid crew shortages

More than 400 State Transportation Department employees were fired for not complying with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate

Published: November 16, 2022 7:35pm

Updated: November 17, 2022 6:14am

(The Center Square) -

Still struggling with an inadequate number of workers, Washington State Ferries announced that it is operating on alternate schedules on some routes until further notice.

“These changes will help offer more predictable and reliable service systemwide in the face of crewing shortages,” the agency’s website says. “WSF will attempt to add service when possible and will provide notifications when full service can temporarily be restored to a route.”

WSF is working to fix a problem that is partially the result of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate that went into effect a little more than a year ago.

In October 2021, more than 400 Washington State Department of Transportation employees were fired for not complying with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate. The largest loss was within WSF, which lost 132 employees – 121 of those as separations and 11 as retirements.

“Washington State Ferries is incrementally adding service to meet increasing demand as the ferry system continues to recover from the pandemic,” a Tuesday Service Restoration Plan Progress Report from WSF stated.

The report goes on to note a return to full capacity is dependent on several variables. Among them are recruiting, hiring and training new employees to fill key positions, and considering retirements and other separations.

“Currently, a shortage of deck officers is what is causing us the most trouble,” explained WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling via email. “The issue is, it takes a long time to get the required certification to become an officer, so there’s a big lag time between hiring someone into the system and when they can serve as a deck officer.”

Per the progress report, as of Oct. 31, WSF has 174 licensed deck officers out of a planned 200.

“We also have several new programs to help existing deck employees attain their officer credentials to help alleviate the shortage,” Sterling added.

WSF is moving toward reaching other targeted staffing levels as well, with 500 unlicensed deck officers out of a planned 546, 181 licensed engineers out of a planned 185, and 188 oilers – the engine room equivalent of sailors – out of a planned 202.

The Center Square asked if there was any possibility of hiring back some WSF employees who were let go because they refused to get vaccinated.

“Like most state employees, WSF workers also need to be vaccinated or receive a religious or medical exemption,” Sterling said. “The vaccine requirement is one factor in the worker shortage, but I think you and I have talked before about the ongoing worldwide shortage of mariners. Every major ferry service I know of is experiencing staff shortages right now.”

He concluded, “Workers that chose to depart back in back in October of 2021 due to the requirement can reapply with WSF should they so desire and provided they are vaccinated or have or are granted one of the exemptions listed above.”

Inslee’s COVID-19 state of emergency declaration from February 2020 ended on Oct. 31, but state employees are still required to be vaccinated against the virus as a condition of employment pursuant to the governor’s summer directive.

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