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At WA Ferries, vaccine mandate looms amidst 'unprecedented' worker shortages

caption: This week labor unions representing WSF employees and state officials entered negotiations over impacts of the Covid vaccine mandate.
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This week labor unions representing WSF employees and state officials entered negotiations over impacts of the Covid vaccine mandate.

Governor Jay Inslee’s announcement of mandatory Covid vaccinations for state workers on Aug. 9 kicked off a turbulent week at Washington State Ferries.

By the end of last week, the agency experienced a severe staffing shortage, and the state transportation secretary issued a reminder for employees to remain civil with one another.

In an Aug. 13 notice, Washington State Ferries Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh said, “We had an unprecedented 91 relief requests yesterday. 91.” She thanked the crew members who helped cover for their absent colleagues.

In response to the shortage, the agency cancelled sailings on Saturday and Sunday morning, and went from two ferries on the Edmonds-Kingston and Clinton-Mukilteo routes to one. Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said, “We were able to essentially steal people from the vessel that was parked in order to at least keep one vessel moving.”

Staffing issues have been a chronic problem throughout the pandemic, but Sterling said last week was “as bad as it’s been, due to the labor shortage, due to people out with active Covid or having to quarantine."

He estimated there are currently six to seven active Covid cases and even more employees quarantining.

“To have that many people out is a real challenge,” Sterling said. “And what that means is our dispatch department has to make hundreds — if not thousands of calls — trying to find someone to fill in for somebody that may call in sick or may not be available to work for whatever reason.”

Those dispatchers were evidently getting an earful from the employees they contacted, prompting the state's Transportation Secretary Roger Millar to issue an all-staff email on Aug. 12 with the subject line “Reminder to treat co-workers with respect, understanding.”

He wrote, “I want to remind staff that we’re all expected to be civil and kind to our co-workers even during difficult or challenging situations. No matter the topic, unprofessional behavior is simply not acceptable workplace behavior in this agency.”

Millar said his particular concern was behavior towards “human resources and WSF dispatchers.”

That email prompted a retort from one WSF employee, engineer Rick Hamiter, who called Inslee’s vaccine mandate “a slap in the face.”

“Maybe the Governor should have thought of the implications of his emergency mandate. So much for inclusion and understanding differing viewpoints. (Emergency use vaccines could adversely affect my health),” he wrote in an email to ferry employees. “There isn’t a work at home option for my job in the system. So while many worked from home we came to work.”

The employee said he will take early retirement in October, adding, “I showed up for my scheduled shift so the boat could sail. Just heard that 91 others had the courage to stand up for their beliefs in a meaningful way. I plan on showing up for my shifts until my expedited retirement date arrives October 1st. This is my protest action. Thank you to all the wonderful people who make the Ferries go back and forth. I will miss you.”

While Hamiter characterized last week’s absences as prompted by opposition to the vaccine mandate, agency and union representatives said they haven’t seen any evidence for that.

“That’s not what we’ve discovered at this point in time and we hope that’s not the case,” Sterling said. “Obviously there’s a vaccine mandate, at the end of the day it speaks for itself. By mid-October working for state ferries and a lot of government agencies it will be a condition of employment that you’re fully vaccinated, so that’s the situation that we’re in.”

Let the bargaining begin

Captain Dan Twohig is the regional representative of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, one of several unions representing ferry service workers. He said last week’s staff shortages were an anomaly, and he hasn’t seen any evidence that they were related to the vaccine rule.

“It was an unusual spike, I think, to the number of open jobs, but I couldn’t really attribute it to anything in particular,” he said. If people do leave their jobs over the mandate, he said, "it will put additional pressure on the manning of the ships, but there’s really no way to quantify it until it happens."

Sterling with WSF said seasonal staffing shortages have been a problem for years; one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “I would anticipate that this is a long-term issue or at least a medium-term issue until we can get the number of employees back where it needs to be,” he said.

He added the new wave of Covid cases prompted by the delta variant has added to the tension at the agency and in general.

“I think it’s one of those things that, everybody’s a little bit on edge and people’s tempers are just probably closer to the surface than they might be.”

A coalition of unions representing Washington State Ferries employees started bargaining with state officials this week over the implementation of the vaccine mandate. Twohig said the unions agree that the mandate is legal and will go forward. But he said federal law gives them the right to bargain any impacts to this change in workplace conditions — such as what happens to employees who qualify for medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement.

“Where do those people work if they’re exempted? Can they work within the regular population of everybody else who is vaccinated? We don’t know yet,” he said. “That’s all part of the conversation of – these are the impacts, how do we deal with it?”

Sterling confirmed that an initial meeting took place on Wednesday.

“There’s not been a bunch of pushback to my knowledge from the labor front, we’ll continue to work with them and make sure their members get vaccinated as required,” he said.

Twohig noted that bargaining must occur quickly because employees seeking a two-shot vaccine will need to start the process in early September to be fully vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. He said anecdotally he believes the mandate has prompted some employees to get vaccinated, but his membership is divided on the rule.

“What are the numbers, the percentages – I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I would have to say I hear more from the people who are against it than I do from the people who are for it, because the people who are for it, it’s happening and they’re happy.”

Sterling said the ferry service doesn’t know how many employees are vaccinated so far. They had a voluntary reporting system, but that has been suspended and a new tracking system will be put in place soon.

On Tuesday, WSDOT's Millar announced the death of maintenance worker Brian Black, due to Covid-19 complications. Millar said Black, who died Aug. 15, is the fourth employee the agency has lost during the pandemic. A ticket seller for the ferry service at Colman Dock was the agency’s first: Esther Bryant-Kyles passed away March 28, 2020.

Millar wrote, “These are difficult times and Brian’s co-workers and friends will all need our help and support. Sadly, each of us has been touched by many kinds of loss during the pandemic, and this news may trigger your own grief or difficult memories as well. Please continue to support each other during this time.”

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