As a result of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Washington ferry service faces a possible slowdown over Labor Day weekend as mariners stage “walkouts.”
Washington State Ferries (WSF) said it expects long lines on the ferries on Labor Day weekend due to COVID-19. “Our dispatch team is working flat out to staff our vessels with some crews needing to quarantine, with many crewmembers holding on and working beyond their scheduled shifts to keep our vessels in service,” said Patty Rubstello, WSF chief, said. “In addition, the maritime industry, both locally and internationally, is facing a shortage of experienced seafarers and many shipping systems are facing a shortage of personnel. We continue to hire new employees, but we struggle to find qualified seafarers.”
However, local media report that the problem is due to “strikes” being organized by seafarers in response to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Multiple sources told KING 5 news that crew members will be calling in sick throughout Puget Sound. Ferry workers are opposing the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate that requires government employees, health care employees and K-12 employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.
The Seattle Times reports that at least five ferry workers were confirmed in August to have the coronavirus on the job, including two engine room workers who were in close contact with colleagues, and a record 91 crew members requested time off, according to a memo from Nicole McIntosh, chief of staff.
Some people identifying themselves as shuttle personnel took the stage at an anti-vaccination rally Saturday in Olympia to protest Inslee’s mandate. “I can’t take the vaccine because I have to defend my freedom. I’ll leave it at that,” said one man who intended to quit his job as an assistant ship engineer, in images posted on twitter by Austin Jenkins on Northwest News Network.
Carrier unions consider the mandate legal and urge their members to report for shifts.
“Please consider that any action that increases pressure on the dispatch system places an unfair burden on your co-workers to try to cover their duties. It is also detrimental to the traveling public who depend on us,” a release from five maritime unions and ferry management said Tuesday.
Ferry managers provided forms to request medical and religious exemptions. These forms asked workers to submit a doctor’s explanation of the risks to their health, or to state that their religious beliefs made vaccination unfeasible.
However, Washington State Ferries says media reports of a hunger strike are exaggerated. “It’s a rumor, and we hope it stays that way,” WSF spokesman Ian Sterling told reporters at the Kitsap Sun. “Our employees have done a heroic job keeping ships coming and going in the midst of a global pandemic, and we want to recognize that. If someone decided to protest in this way … it’s not legal and there are other legal means in which they can make their voice heard that don’t inconvenience thousands of passengers or really leave their co-workers in the lurch, because they’re trying to make up for them.”