Transportation
5:00 am
Wed March 27, 2013

Costs said to hamper staffing fixes aboard Washington ferries

Washington ferry officials blame budget cuts and new rules for Monday’s cancelations, but workers say that kind of disruption could be avoided.

It didn't take much: A crew member called in sick around midnight. A captain took a vacation but still wound up on the schedule. Those routine staffing hiccups resulted in four canceled ferry runs Monday, stranding hundreds of passengers. 

Most ferries used to have an additional crew member onboard who could fill in, but due to budget cuts and new requirements from the Coast Guard just about every boat now carries the bare minimum. 

“Until we can figure out how to provide for some additional flexibility, we can’t sail unless we have the proper staff onboard," said David Moseley, the Washington Department of Transportation official in charge of the ferry system. 

The ferry workers’ union says it’s proposed several ways to address last-minute shortages, such as staffing a limited graveyard shift or paying workers a partial wage to be on call. So far, the ferry system hasn’t taken them up on it, citing costs. 

“They do cost money, but what do you lose when a vbessel doesn’t sail?" said Jay Ubelhart, a business agent for the Inlandboatman’s union. “I mean, a standby system isn’t as expensive as a person on full-time, but when a boat doesn’t sail there’s a lot of ancillary costs.”

A system spokeswoman reported 61 cancelations in the second half of 2012, when the staffing problems began in earnest. There had been none this year until just last week, which was followed by the four on Monday.