The announcement by Washington Governor Jay Inslee of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for state employees comes at a time when the state ferry system is experiencing severe staff shortages.
KUOW reports that Washington State Ferries’ chief of staff Nicole McIntosh said in a statement dated Aug. 13 that there was “an unprecedented 91 requests for assistance” yesterday. She thanked the crew members who had helped cover up their absent colleagues.
In response to the shortage, the agency canceled the crossings and switched from two ferries on the Edmonds-Kingston and Clinton-Mukilteo routes to one. Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling said staffing issues had been a chronic problem throughout the pandemic, but last week was “just as bad as before because of labor shortages, people being quarantined with active Covid or quarantined “.
He estimates that there are currently six to seven active Covid cases and even more employees in quarantine.
“Having so many people out there is a real challenge,” said Sterling.
Inslee has issued a vaccination mandate that applies to most government employees – and those who are not fully vaccinated by October 18 risk losing their jobs. A full vaccination means two weeks after a last dose, which means workers will need the last dose of Pfizer or Moderna or the one-time dose from Johnson & Johnson by October 4th.
Captain Dan Twohig, the regional representative for the International Organization of Captains, Mates and Pilots, one of several unions representing workers in the ferry service, said last week’s staff shortage was an anomaly.
“I think it was an unusual increase in the number of vacancies, but I couldn’t really attribute it to anything in particular,” he said. If people stop working beyond the vaccination mandate, “it will put additional pressure on the ships’ crew, but there is really no way to quantify it until it does.”
A coalition of labor unions representing Washington State Ferries employees started negotiations with state officials this week to implement the vaccine mandate. Twohig said the unions agree that the mandate is legal and will continue.
But he said federal law gives them the right to negotiate the effects of this change in workplace conditions.