Coincidence? Ferry service reliable after unions win staffing battle



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Posted on November 14, 2012 at 1:09 AM

Updated Monday, Nov 4 at 11:19 AM

After a record number of late and cancelled sailings due to both employees not showing up for work and dispatch operators making errors, ferry riders are seeing reliability back at the country’s largest ferry system.

There have been no cancelled or late departures for 15 days due to staffing issues. That’s the best track record since May.

“My reaction is, I’m very thankful for that,” said David Moseley, director of Washington State Ferries.

New data shows drastic increase

The ferry system has struggled all year with staffing problems. Riders said they had never seen anything like it. A KING 5 analysis of state records confirms the drastic spike in service interruption due to employees not being in place when the boats needed to sail. Here is a breakdown by year of the number of late or cancelled departures due to staffing issues:

•    2010 – 37
•    2011 – 27
•    2012 – 113

Explaining the increase

What would account for the remarkable increase? Union leaders blame it on a reduction in manning levels as a cost saving measure in June of this year. That happened after the U.S. Coast Guard made a ruling on March 12, 2012 that passengers and staff would be safe if staffing levels were slightly reduced. But that took away a cushion in case an employee was suddenly sick or stuck in traffic. Both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding that they would abide by whatever the Coast Guard decided.

“The margin of error was taken away,” said Jay Ubelhart, Business Agent for the Inland Boatman’s Union (IBU), Puget Sound Region. The IBU represents deckhands.

Possible "wild cat action" email surfaces

At least one State Ferries dispatch manager, Pete Williams, surmised there was more to it. When staffing levels were becoming a hot button issue, Williams wrote in a February 28, 2011 email to his superiors that they experienced a “higher than usual sick call from fleet employees.” He also wrote the real problem came when stand-by workers didn’t step up to the plate to pitch in. “the real concern was …the number of IBU on-call employees who would not return phone calls and IBU relief’s refusing to be assigned as allowed in the bargaining agreement,” wrote Williams. He went on to write “my experience told me there may be some type of wild cat action being taken by employees.” A wild cat action is defined as a work action that has not been called or sanctioned by officials of the union.

Coast Guard changes ruling: Unions were right

On October 26, 2012 the staffing level controversy was settled once and for all by a new U.S. Coast Guard ruling. After additional input from unions and ferry managers, the Coast Guard changed its position. They ruled the unions were correct. Staffing should be increased for safety reasons.

“The …changes are not an implication that WSF’s safety record is substandard. WSF does have a strong safety record, but as noted…WSF operates a large fleet in a demanding and complex operating environment that mandates providing essential resources to further protect the ferries from the low probability but high consequence event of a ferry collision or sinking,” said Capt. Scott Ferguson, U.S. Coast Guard, Commander, Sector Puget Sound.

After that ruling, the cancelled and late sailings stopped. Moseley believes the improvement stems from a combined effort from state and union leaders to impress upon staff the importance of an on-time performance.

“The most important thing to me is that we have reliability of service (restored), and our employees are part of that and our bargaining units worked with us to ensure that they reminded all of our employees how important that is,” said Moseley. Union and WSF leaders sent a joint statement out to all ferry employees on October 22, 2012 to urge on time performance.

Suspicious timing?

Some members of the citizen based Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) say the timing is suspicious.

“The fact that no more cancelled sailings right when the Coast Guard came out with a ruling favorable to unions, that’s too much of a coincidence. I think it’s definitely suspicious,” said Tom Thiersch, Port Townsend FAC member.

"What's happened? What's changed? Have people on standby started answering their phones like they were supposed to be? I can't think of what else externally that's changed that would cause all of the sudden no more crewing issues," said Thiersch.

Union: Pure coincidence

Union leaders say it is simply coincidental.

“It’s great that we’ve had no cancelled sailings since October 29th. It is just a coincidence,” said Ubelhart. “We’ve made efforts to contact our members stressing the importance of being on time and ready to go to work. There never was any work action. It’s a complete coincidence, a fluke.”

"I have raised that question (of a work slowdown) with bargaining units. They've assured me that is not the case. I believe they are honorable people, I'll take them at their word," said Moseley.