Washington State Ferries’ staffing shortage faces a new foe — vaccine mandates

Washington State Ferries is feeling the pressure this year as COVID spreads through its ranks and a vaccine mandate nears on the horizon.

“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),” WSF Engineer Rick Hamiter wrote in an email to fellow staff, according to KUOW. “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 vaccine is a “slap in the face” Hamiter wrote in response to an email from Washington State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, KUOW reported.

Hamiter had requested staff to treat coworkers with respect and understanding.

“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,” Millar wrote. “No matter the topic, unprofessional behavior is simply not acceptable workplace behavior in this agency.”

Hamiter wrote he will retire in October — an early exit — to avoid the vaccine requirement.

“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,” Hamiter said, according to KUOW. “This is my protest action. Thank you to all the wonderful people who make the Ferries go back and forth. I will miss you.”

According to KUOW’s report, 91 relief requests were made by WSF employees on Aug. 12. Six or seven employees were experiencing active COVID cases and additional employees were quarantined, WSF Spokesperson Ian Sterling told KUOW.

The union representing WSF employees is currently in talks with state leadership regarding the mandate, according to KUOW. The agency does not know how many of its employees have been vaccinated as, until now, it has operated on a voluntary reporting system, but it’s switching to a more affirmative tracking system soon, KUOW reported.

On Aug. 15, maintenance worker Brian Black was the fourth WSF employee to die of COVID. The first was Colman Dock ticket seller Esther Bryant-Kyles on March 28, 2020.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Aug. 9 that all state employees, health care works, long-term are facility employees and those who work in dental clinics to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Washington State Ferries employees, as well as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, are subject to the mandate as well.

“It is the mission of public servants and those providing health care to serve our fellow Washingtonians. These workers live in every community in our state, working together and with the public every day to deliver services,” Inslee said. “We have a duty to protect them from the virus, they have the right to be protected, and the communities they serve and live in deserve protection as well.”

Anyone who chooses to not comply with Inslee’s vaccine mandate will be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal from their job for failing to meet the qualifications. Only employees who have a documented medical reason or strongly-held religious beliefs preventing vaccination are exempt from the mandate.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID is a public good. We have come so close to defeating this deadly disease,” Inslee said. “We have the tool — the vaccine — to get this era behind us. It is safe, it is effective, and you will never regret getting it.”

WSF was struggling to staff its vessels prior to the vaccine mandate, however.

WSF crews operated with an extra member prior to 2012, in case someone called in due to an emergency, Sterling told the Seattle Times in early July. Now, ferries are staffed with the minimum number of crew members to save the agency money, the Seattle Times reporters added.

In A June 24 letter from WSF Chief of Staff Nicole Macintosh to the crew of all vessels, she expressed her concern about managing an “unprecedented staffing challenge.”

“We have an obligation to the taxpayers of the state to not miss sailings due to crewing,” Mackintosh wrote. “ When we do it lets down thousands of customers who trust and depend on getting them safely to their destinations.