washington state ferries

The Olympic-class Washington State Ferry Samish during sea trials in April 2015. Photo: Washington State Ferries

Washington Ferry Mariners Protest COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

John Konrad
Total Views: 4554
September 2, 2021

As a result of the state’s mandate for COVID-19 vaccines, Washington’s ferry service faces a potential slowdown over Labor Day weekend as mariners stage “sickouts”.

The Washington State Ferries (WSF) said they expect long ferry lines on Labor Day weekend due to COVID-19. “Our dispatch team is working in overdrive to staff our vessels with some crew needing to quarantine, with many crewmembers holding over and working beyond their scheduled shifts to keep our vessels in service,” said Patty Rubstello, head of WSF. “In addition, the maritime sector, both locally and internationally, is facing a shortage of experienced seafarers and many marine transportation systems are dealing with a staffing shortfall. We continue to recruit new employees, but we’re struggling to find qualified mariners.”

Local media, however, is reporting that the problem is due to “sickouts” being staged by mariners in response to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Multiple sources told KING 5 news that crewmembers will be calling in sick up and down Puget Sound. The sickouts are expected on all ferry routes by ferry workers who are opposed to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate requiring government employees, health care employees, and K-12 employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. 

The Seattle Times is reporting that at least five ferry workers were confirmed in August to have the coronavirus on the job, including two engine-room workers in close contact with colleagues and a record 91 crew members requested time off, according to a memo by Nicole McIntosh, chief of staff.

Some people identifying themselves as ferries staff took the stage at an anti-vaccination rally Saturday in Olympia to protest Inslee’s mandate. “I can’t take the shot because I’ve got to stand up for my freedom. I’ll leave it at that,” said one man who intended to quit his job as an assistant vessel engineer, in footage posted on twitter by Austin Jenkins at Northwest News Network.

Ferry workers unions consider the mandate legal and urge members to report for shifts. 

“Please consider that any action that increases the pressure on the Dispatch system puts an unfair burden on your fellow employees to try to fill your duties. It also is detrimental to the traveling public who depend on us,” said a note Tuesday by five maritime unions and ferries management.

Managers at the ferry provided forms to request medical and religious exemptions. These forms asked workers to provide a doctor’s explanation of their health risks, or declare that their religious beliefs make vaccinations impractical.

Washington State Ferries, however, says the media reports of a sickout are overblown. “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 the boats going back and forth during the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and we want to recognize that. If someone were to choose to protest in this way … it’s not legal and there are other legal means where you can have your voice heard that doesn’t inconvenience thousands of passengers or really leave your coworkers in a lurch, because they’re trying to fill in for you.”

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