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Ferry system leaders address a spurt of canceled sailings

A recent rash of ferry cancellations on the south end of Vashon was not due to a crew reduction or intentional work slow-down, but simple employee errors, ferry officials told Islanders last week.

At Washington State Ferries’ community meeting on Vashon last Wednesday, David Moseley, head of the ferries division, said he believes most of the cancellations — 26 trips in less than five months compared to one canceled trip during that time period last year — resulted from honest mistakes when employees failed to show for shifts or dispatchers made scheduling errors. He apologized for the problems, saying WSF has addressed the situation and so far has seen the cancellations subside.

“The number of missed sailings due to staffing issues is too high,” he told a crowd of about 30 people at McMurray Middle School. “Fortunately we haven’t had any lately, but we as a system have let customers down this summer.”

The problems began in June, when the ferry system began to see an unusually high number of trips canceled because boats were short staffed — either an employee failed to show up for a shift, called in sick or a scheduling error was made, and the state couldn’t find a replacement worker in time.

Materials handed out at the meeting, where a number of ferry-related topics were discussed, showed that between mid-June and the end of last month, there were 85 trips canceled system-wide, mostly due to staffing issues. According to WSF records, there were six ferry cancellations due to staffing issues during the same period last year.

The Point Defiance-Tahlequah route has experienced the bulk of the problems, with 26 one-way trips canceled. On the north end triangle route, there were four trips canceled, all due to staffing issues.

Some blamed the cancellations on the state’s decision in June to cut staffing on 10 ferries, including the three that normally serve the north end. The cash-strapped system reduced crew sizes to the minimum legally required, a cost-saving measure it estimated would save about $1 million per year. But the bare-bones crews sometimes meant that if a boat was short one employee, it couldn’t sail.

Ferry officials at the meeting, however, said the majority of the staffing problems could not be traced back to staff reductions. Most boats lost a deck crew member in the reductions, they explained, and oftentimes the missing employee was a more skilled ferry worker. In those cases, having an extra deck crew wouldn’t have allowed the boat to sail, said Steve Rodgers, WSF’s director of operations.

“That definitely was a small safety net that could sometimes salvage the running of a ferry, but it wasn’t always,” he said.

And staffing levels certainly weren’t the issue on the south end, they said. The state hasn’t reduced crew numbers on the Chetzemoka, the boat that serves that Point Defiance-Tahlequah route. Other boats with no staff reductions have experienced similar staffing issues, Moseley said.

“Data shows most canceled sailings happened on vessels that did not have reductions in crew,” Moseley said.

Nonetheless, the issue gained attention this fall when at least two Seattle news stations ran reports on the increase in ferry cancellations. A KOMO report included a ferry union leader blaming WSF for cutting staff, while a KING5 report suggested the issues may stem from a work slow-down by employees upset about recent pay cuts.

In mid-October, KING5 broadcasted a report on the issue from the Point Defiance ferry terminal. On that day, there had been two cancellations on the route because crew members failed to show for their shifts.

Moseley appeared in the report and said there was no evidence employees were intentionally missing work.

“I believe that these were honest mistakes, human mistakes, but it is disturbing that we’re having more of these than we’ve had in the past,” he told KING5.

Moseley sounded a similar tone on Vashon last week, and two ferry employees who showed for the meeting also defended the crews. One shouted during the meeting that he was offended by news reports that suggested an intentional work slow-down.

“There isn’t a work stoppage or a slowdown,” said another ferry worker, Islander Mark Gripp “Unfortunately it came out in the media from a different perspective.”

When Islanders at the meeting then asked Moseley to explain the sudden increase in cancellations on the south end, he said he knew the reason behind each staffing issue but simply couldn’t explain the spurt of problems. He did say that most WSF employees live in the central Puget Sound area, so it can be harder to find workers who can fill in on the Point Defiance route with short notice.

Moseley stressed that letters about the issue were sent out to all employees, and supervisors and dispatchers were told to keep careful track of their scheduling. Since then, they’ve seen the cancellations drop.

“We have done our part … to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Rodgers added, “because we take our reliability seriously.”

Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, said after the meeting that a number of factors may have contributed to the surge in short-staffed boats. Recent decisions by the state have reduced ferry workers’ overtime pay, restricted how many hours they can work in a given period and eliminated some travel compensation. Beardsley figures WSF has simply had a harder time finding workers willing to fill in when a boat is short-staffed, especially during the busy summer months.

“People who used to travel to fill spots on a regular basis, it’s not worth their time to drive from Z to Y. All of these could be factors in what’s occurring now,” he said.

Beardsley, who has on occasion been critical of WSF, said that the cancellations were likely a huge inconvenience to some Islanders, especially on the south end where ferry trips are scheduled an hour or more apart. Still, he said he didn’t fault the ferry system and thought officials responded appropriately.

Meanwhile, ferry officials said they anticipate that the Coast Guard will decide this week on whether minimum crew requirements should be raised on Vashon’s ferries and several others in the system, a move that would effectively undo some of the state’s staffing cuts. Meeting a new requirement, they noted, would not mean the boats would have extra staff as they once did.

The Coast Guard last month raised minimum crew levels on some of the largest ferries — a decision the agency made after it learned of the state’s crew reductions and did its own evaluation, determining that more staff were required in case of an emergency on a boat. The Coast Guard mandate will likely require the hiring of about a dozen new employees and has been estimated to cost the state another $14.1 million in the 2013-2015 biennium.

At the meeting, Moseley said the cost comes as one more hit to the cash-strapped ferry system.

He noted that a budget he forwarded to Gov. Christine Gregoire in September, which included $5 million in service cuts across the system, did not take into account any added staffing costs. He said the governor and state Legislature will now have to consider an even more dire situation for the ferries’ budget, and he hopes this is the year they find a sustainable source of revenue to keep the ferries afloat.

“It’s not a sustainable future,” he said.

 

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