Worker Shortage Causing Major Problems for Washington State Ferry Transportation

by Shelby Scott

Staffing shortages continue to cripple industries across the United States. Now, Washington State’s ferry transportation service sees major disruptions as a result. Further, a COVID outbreak among employees and frequent repairs further contribute to the lack of transportation the state currently experiences.

Amid all of the above ongoing interruptions, authorities have stated that delays and cancelations could ensue for weeks. Some project as far out as the end of October.

Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) Assistant Secretary, Patty Rubstello, stated, “We’ve had a lot of staff out, because they’ve tested positive with COVID, and then that has a ripple effect with other staff being quarantined.”

According to, rumors of a coordinated employee “sickout” arose. Some suspect employees initiated a protest in response to vaccination requirements, however, sources have confirmed zero evidence of the event. Press asked Rubstello if the employee shortage could at all be a coordinated protest. However, she simply responded, “a lot of people were sick, COVD was clearly a part of it.”

Ferries Lack Properly Certified Employees

The outlet further stated that the state’s San Juan Island runs recently saw cancelations. Additionally, reservations remained limited over the weekend as a result. Interestingly, two mariner union representatives said they were surprised by the weekend’s problems. Their surprise perhaps indicates the suddenness of the labor shortage. The pair further said authorities took no coordinated labor actions.

One representative, Jay Ubelhart who serves as President of the Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific, stated the industry currently combats a national staffing and training shortage for Merchant Mariners. He further explained that any disruption within the system overall results in problems.

In reference to shortages, Ubelhart said, “The general public has no idea what it takes to be credentialed to serve on a ferry.”

Shortages Lie Outside of a Lack of Employees

The labor shortage among the ferry system in Washington is definitely detrimental. However, it’s not the only issue mariners currently face. Downed boats and a lack of mechanics have resulted in alternative routes, smaller crafts, and overall major disruptions.

King5 stated the Bremerton-Seattle route possesses only one functioning boat for now. Authorities did not report on when further transportation may begin. In response to the majorly disrupted route, Rubstello said, “We looked at everything we could and what other options we had and the only option we had was to put a really small boat that would disrupt service even more.”

While authorities remain aware of industry problems and disruptions, solutions remain far and few in between. Former San Juan County Commissioner Rick Hughes said, “Ferries are our lifeline for our community.”

He relayed that at one point, the region boasted 26 boats. “Now we’re down to 18 or 19 that are actually functioning.”

Amid ongoing labor shortages and out-of-commission boats and ferries, Rubstello and Congressman Rick Larsen highlighted the need for further ferry funding. They additionally pointed to other, more modern and innovative solutions that would resolve several of the industry’s current issues.