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'I’m fired': Washington’s ferry workers say lack of accommodations for vaccine exemptions is forcing them out

Some workers say they were granted religious exemptions but Washington State Ferries couldn't accommodate them to keep them on staff.

EDMONDS, Wash. — Approximately 200 employees of Washington State Ferries (WSF) remain unvaccinated Monday, the deadline for state workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs. 

"I'm fired," said ferry deck crew member Christopher Anderson. "It's really too bad. I wish they'd have a change of heart."

Chief engineer Craig Henriksen has notched 23 years with the state ferry system. It's a career he planned to retire from but instead it's being cut short. 

"It's surreal," he said. "I feel like I'm in shock."

Henriksen has a wife and five children. He was granted a religious exemption for the mandate, but he said the ferry system refused to make any accommodations that would allow him to keep working.

"I applied for other accommodations like to maybe even driving a snow plow, or something," Henriksen said. "They won't accommodate me in any way shape or form."

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WSF has been plagued with problems during the pandemic, specifically staffing shortages that have paralyzed the system at times.

Ferry officials have blamed COVID-19 cases and quarantines, as well as a global shortage of maritime workers for the staffing challenges. But Henriksen and Anderson said that isn't the real problem. 

"They'd rather cripple the state ferry system than keep the boats running," said Anderson.

Anderson said he believes the state could solve the crew shortage if they would simply grant the accommodations many are seeking to stay on the job.

Now, Anderson said, it's the public that will pay. 

"The passengers are gonna be missing medical appointments. They're going to be stranded at ferry terminals for hours on end. They're going to be late to their own jobs. It has a big ripple effect," said Anderson.

Ferry officials said ferry ridership has returned to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Just a few weeks ago, 28 ferry workers out of 1,400 crew members called out sick and it forced the cancellation of more than 150 ferry crossings. 

Since then, ferry officials have reduced the number of sailings to accommodate the crew shortage. Officials said even with about 200 crew members expected to lose their jobs, they have the situation under control. 

"We're pretty confident we can keep the schedule we have right now so people can rely on the ferry services that they always have," said WSF spokesman Ian Sterling. "It's like having a two lane highway and closing one of the lanes. It slows things down and let's face it, this isn't plan A, B, or even C. That's why we've gone to this schedule and we're confident we can keep to it."