Vaccine rule comes as Washington State Ferries face staffing crunch

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for state workers comes at a time when the state ferry system is experiencing a severe staffing shortage.

KUOW reports that in an Aug. 13 notice, Washington State Ferries Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh said there was "an unprecedented 91 relief requests yesterday." She thanked the crew members who helped cover for their absent colleagues.

In response to the shortage, the agency cancelled sailings and went from two ferries on the Edmonds-Kingston and Clinton-Mukilteo routes to one. Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said staffing issues have been a chronic problem throughout the pandemic, but last week was "as bad as it’s been, due to the labor shortage, due to people out with active Covid or having to quarantine."

He estimated there are currently six to seven active Covid cases and even more employees quarantining.

"To have that many people out is a real challenge," Sterling said.

RELATED: Inslee expands statewide mask mandate and K-12 school staff are required to get vaccinated

Inslee has issued a vaccine mandate that applies to most state workers - and those who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 risk losing their jobs. Full vaccination means two weeks after a final dose, meaning workers need the final dose of either Pfizer or Moderna, or the one-shot dose of Johnson & Johnson by Oct. 4.

Captain Dan Twohig, the regional representative of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, one of several unions representing ferry service workers, said last week’s staff shortages were an anomaly.

"It was an unusual spike, I think, to the number of open jobs, but I couldn’t really attribute it to anything in particular," he said. If people do leave their jobs over the vaccine mandate, he said, "it will put additional pressure on the manning of the ships, but there’s really no way to quantify it until it happens."

A coalition of unions representing Washington State Ferries employees started bargaining with state officials this week over the implementation of the vaccine mandate. Twohig said the unions agree that the mandate is legal and will go forward.

But he said federal law gives them the right to bargain any impacts to this change in workplace conditions.

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