The MV Sealth sails from Orcas to Shaw Island on the afternoon of Jan. 27, 2021. (Mandi Johnson/staff photo)

Some WSF employees threaten ‘sickout’ over busy sailing weekend

On the eve of one of the islands’ busiest weekends, ferry-goers braced for a choppy ride. Prior to the weekend’s sailings, enough Washington State Ferries employees expressed a desire to demonstrate against Washington state’s new vaccine mandate to draw attention.

“The WSF employees have tried to be reasonable about this, but nobody has been listening. So, those rumors you have heard about protesting are true,” Chris Jones, a pseudonym for a WSF contractor in Friday Harbor who asked to remain anonymous, said.

All employees of the Washington state government are required to be vaccinated and to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 18, which some say violates their freedom. Many reservations were canceled as a result of a lack of staff. Ferry employees cannot legally protest as it goes against their union, so they have to be very careful about speaking out otherwise they risk losing their job.

However, for some, it is a risk they are willing to take.

“A lot of them are like, ‘To hell with you, you think you can fire me for not getting a stick, well, good luck,’” Jones stated.

Jones said it was their understanding that most WSF employees are against the mandate, vaccinated or not. Some of those employees who are vaccinated still refuse to show their paperwork as a way of supporting the freedom of their fellow coworkers, Jones added.

“If they can pull it off and enough of them call in sick and the ferries can’t get one boat out of the dock, that’s going to be huge for the state,” Jones said. “Inslee is not going to be able to turn his head and say, ‘Oh refill those spots.’ Well, no, you can’t. Staffing has already been a problem for the past, like, eight years with the ferries.”

Jones continued to explain that they know of about 150 WSF employees who are not willing to get vaccinated. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, WSF employs approximately 2,000 people around the Puget Sound region.

“It’s got nothing to do with whether they believe the vaccine will work or not it’s just against our American fibers, to be told you’re going to take this stick or have your freedom revoked. Could you imagine having vaccine passports? Does it not remind you of the Nazi days?” Jones got into character with furrowed brows as slammed their hand on the table and said with a menacing tone, “Show me your papers.”

“It doesn’t sound very American to me,” another WSF employee chimed in.

Not all WSF employees are on the same page. A third WSF employee said, “Not all of us agree with this, you know. I’ve been getting vaccinated my whole life. The people that this is really hurting is the islanders.”

Friday Harbor business owner Karrie King said her business has felt the effects of the ferry delays. While the pandemic certainly took a toll on many small businesses, King said her business had so far returned to pre-COVID sales. She was feeling optimistic up until recently.

“Now with the uncertainty of whether ferries will run as scheduled, I am fearful of how well I may survive the traditionally slow off-season,” King said. “Surely visitors will think twice about coming to the island for even a day trip when uncertain if they will get stuck here and face difficulty finding a room or affording one.”

While the WSF employees can’t protest, neither can the contractors, Jones said, as it would go against their contract. Being contracted out, they are also being pushed to get the vaccine and if they don’t, they risked getting their contract pulled. Jones did say they don’t mind coming to work because they don’t think it would do anyone favors if nobody was there to tell people what is going on.

“We are counting on the ferry guys to do their thing,” Jones said. “They’ve got my full support, I back them 100%. I don’t want to see not one boat leave the dock. Not one.”

Jones said they believe the vaccine mandate imposed on WSF employees is technically illegal because even though it is a state-funded ferry, the ferry routes are considered federally funded freeways.

Jones is not the only worker who has felt confused by the legality of the mandate.

Erin Williams, another WSF contract employee who asked to remain anonymous, said they are on the fence about the vaccine. Williams explained they received an email explaining the mandate followed by another email that stated WSF can’t legally make employees show their vaccine paperwork.

“So, what do they want me to do? Lie? I’m confused!” Williams exclaimed.

Both the contractors share skepticism over the vaccine, along with the WSF employees.

“I definitely understand people protesting. Just like with ladies, the government shouldn’t be telling you what to do with your body. It’s your body, it’s your decision,” Willams said. “It’s like if you don’t do what we say, you’re going to find a new job and you won’t be able to qualify for unemployment.”

Doris Schaller, who has been a San Juan Island local since 2002, opposes the opinions of those who are against the vaccine, especially after recently losing her sister-in-law to COVID.

Her sister-in-law was living in Wenatchee when wildfire smoke had rolled in for a few days. With her having asthma, she assumed her symptoms were from the smoke, not suspecting she was sick with COVID. Later, she collapsed in her home. Once she was in the hospital, she tested positive for COVID and had very low oxygen levels. She was placed in a regular room for a couple of days before being moved to the ICU, said Schaller.

“I think she was there, gosh, 10 days maybe before she passed away,” Schaller said. “She was on a respirator and incubated and the respirator had quit working for her.”

Soon after this experience, Schaller saw a video of ferry workers protesting in Olympia. The ferry worker spoke about how, after being with WSF for 30 years, he was going to not get vaccinated and find another job. After the crowd applauded him, Schaller said she felt rather angry because her sister-in-law was not able to get vaccinated for health reasons, but she said knows she got COVID from someone who was also unvaccinated.

“It was just one ferry worker speaking and it was his freedom that he was worried about. So that’s fine, but if you’re worried about your freedom, find somewhere else to work. That’s how I feel about it,” she said. “I was sitting in the ferry line on Sunday and when it first pulled up, I was glad it was running again. But then I thought, you know, if I’m going to be going on a ferry and the workers aren’t even vaccinated, I’d rather maybe not sail. That boat can just sit still.”

Many others anticipated just that — for the ferries to sit still. There have been so many cancellations that islanders are posting up-for-grabs ferry reservations for people to use before canceling.

As a result of the unreliable ferries, there has been a new Facebook group created called, “SJIs Boat rideshare/hitchhiking group.” It is designed to help locals travel interisland and to the mainland. The group, after not even existing for 24 hours already, saw 160 members join.

The creator of the page, April Randall, owns a sailboat which she frequently takes to Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes. She sails year-round.

“Just in case there is a, you know, catastrophic failure in the ferry system,” Randall laughed. “We can take care of some of the more important stuff for each other.”

Randall said that, in her experience, there’s always been plenty of Ubers around Cap Sante, along with public transportation and a rental business located two blocks from the marina.

“My intention is who knows what you’re going to see here in the next coming months or so, so we want to be prepared,” Randall said. “I think that it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Hopefully, we won’t have to do too much of picking people up but if we see a failure in the ferry service then we will be ready to help each other.”