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Employee exodus could 'cripple' Washington ferry system as dozens of sailings canceled again Friday

Experts worry potential crew shortages could create major problems for Washington state ferry riders. Over 100 sailings were canceled or delayed again Friday.

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — Around 250 Washington State Ferries (WSF) employees are still unvaccinated against COVID-19 as Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate deadline is less than two weeks away, according to information relayed to Ferry Advisory Committee members.

State employees are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or risk losing their jobs. Experts worry a significant loss of employees could create major problems for WSF.

Crew shortages, mechanical issues and canceled crossings have become commonplace during the pandemic. 

At least 30 crossings were canceled on Thursday, and over 100 sailings were canceled or delayed on Friday due to a “lack of Coast Guard documented crew.” Click here to see the latest WSF travel alerts.

"It wouldn't take much to cripple the system," said retired ferry Capt. Ken Burtness.

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Burtness spent his entire 30-year career with WSF. He said what he's seeing now has him thinking doomsday.

“The term I’ve been using is ferry boat Armageddon,” Burtness laughed.

However, Burtness is aware the problems the ferry system is facing are no laughing matter.

"Every day is a disruption," said Burtness. "People can't count on the ferries right now."

A total of three ferry boats are already out of service due to mechanical issues. If the ferry system loses more employees, even more vessels could be out of commission.

Coast Guard safety and staffing protocols mean losing just one crew member can pull a ship out of service for an entire day.

"It's easy to see that any significant number of that 250, if they do leave employment with WSF, it's not gonna be a very pretty picture," said Burtness.

The San Juan Island sailings have been the hardest hit so far.

Islanders depend on ferries to keep their grocery stores stocked and to get to doctor appointments and hospitals.

"On a scale of one to 10, my frustration level is a 15," said islander Theresa Mathews.

She has lived in Friday Harbor for 21 years and has never seen things so bad.

"People are gonna start suffering severely," she said. "Imagine if you couldn't get to your house after buying groceries or having surgery. Imagine if you couldn't leave your house to go do the things you need."

The Seattle to Bainbridge Island crossing has also been impacted. Officials said the situation is a “moving target,” and disruptions can happen “anywhere at any time.”

The number of unvaccinated ferry workers was as high as 450 crew members a few weeks ago, and numbers continue to drop. Burtness hopes the ferry system will avoid major complications, but he isn’t optimistic.

"Living with limited ferry services is gonna be a way of life here for a significant portion of time," he said. "I can't think of how this will be solved. It's a very difficult situation."

A spokesperson for WSF said ferry officials will have more information to share next week when they try to give passengers a better sense of how bad the situation is and the plans to mitigate it.

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