Washington ferries reduce crewing on some boats, may cut engineers

Washington State Ferries (WSF) has reduced crew sizes on nearly half its vessels and is considering additional cuts, drawing a labor challenge from three of its largest unions.

Starting June 17, the state-owned ferry system pulled one seaman from each watch on its Jumbo, Issaquah and Evergreen State class ferries. Company officials are also considering reducing engine-room personnel from four to three on its Super-class ferries.

Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission was due to hear an unfair labor practices claim filed by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU) , the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots (MM&P) in late July.

David Moseley, director of Washington State Ferries, said the reductions occurred on vessels where staffing was previously above U.S. Coast Guard requirements. He said the changes, which aligned staffing levels with those requirements, won’t impact safety and should have only minor effects on operations.

“With one less person, maybe the boat wouldn’t be as tidy as it might otherwise be, but those are operational consequences (of the reduction),” he said. “The mandatory staffing level is really driven by what is the staffing level that is mandatory to operate the vessel safely in emergency situations, not to operate in day-to-day situations.”

The cuts will save the ferry system, which is among the largest in the world, about $4 million in its $750 million biennial budget. Moseley said the “financially challenged” system also has raised fares in recent years.

Union officials argue that the reduced staffing could have a serious impact on operations, on-time service and potentially rider safety.

The ferry system began looking at crewing during a 2010 peer review, Moseley said. At the time, he says a suggestion was made to reduce crew sizes to staffing levels required by the Coast Guard’s Certificate of Inspection (COI). Each of the three affected vessel classes had one seaman more than was required by the Coast Guard.

Management and representatives from the three unions met in 2011, but did not agree on any staffing changes. However, both sides signed a March 2011 “memo of understanding” asking the Coast Guard to review staffing levels for four vessel classes and agreeing to abide by the Coast Guard’s decision.

“If the Coast Guard review creates a need for a change in staffing levels, WSF will implement those changes in the next seasonal bid cycle,” the March 2011 memo reads.

The Coast Guard determined in March 2012 that staffing laid out on the Certificate of Inspection on three of the four vessels was adequate, according to a letter from John Dwyer, chief of inspections for Sector Puget Sound. A determination on the Super-class ferry is still pending.

Officials from the three unions disagree with the scope of the Coast Guard review. They are hoping state mediators will throw out the March 2011 memo of understanding that led to the crew changes, thereby returning staffing to previous levels.

“I think safety is a huge concern,” said Jeff Duncan, a Seattle patrolman and MEBA member, which stands to lose up to 16 assistant engineer positions if new cuts are approved.

“Right now you have two licenses there when we are making landings or doing any of our maneuvering,” he said. “(If the reduction is made) then you’ve got one guy. If you have something else happening at one time, you don’t have a licensed guy to deal with whatever that is.”

Under the change, about 25 IBU seamen with the lowest seniority went from regular status to on-call status. The MM&P union is not slated to lose positions.

Alan Cote, president of the IBU, suggested losing the additional crewman could impact service.

“We feel strongly that the COI is a minimum standard, not an optimum standard. The COI on its own does not address the operational needs of the vessel,” he said.

If staffing levels are upheld, Moseley said the impacts likely will be felt most during the winter months when fewer vessels are running.

The Jumbo class was reduced to 13 crew from 14. The Issaquah and Evergreen State classes declined to 10 crew from 11.

By Professional Mariner Staff