State ferry system still short of hiring enough crew

The Alaska Marine Highway System has enough crew to operate its summer schedule, though it still lacks a sufficient cushion to handle worker illnesses, injuries and personal leave without holding over staff for extra shifts.

“We have been holding people longer than they would like,” Transportation Department spokesman Sam Dapcevich said last week.

And the state ferry system is far short of the additional staff that would have been needed to bring the Columbia back to service after a three-year absence for maintenance and a money-saving tie-up. The state last fall had “penciled in” the Columbia to return to work serving Southeast ports this summer, but that was contingent on hiring 125 workers to bolster its crew numbers.

The marine highway didn’t come close to that, still short about 80 crew as of last week, Dapcevich said.

The state will continue to offer $5,000 signing bonuses for new stewards, the entry-level position for crew members without sea time, he said. The ferry system will continue the bonus, which is paid for new hires who stick around at least six months, through December.

The ferry system also is considering a cash bonus for current employees who refer a new hire, Dapcevich said.

Entry-level stewards start at $22.01 an hour for Alaska residents who report to work in Southeast. Wages are subject to union contracts, which are under negotiation, Dapcevich said.

Cutbacks in ferry service the past few years have reduced the work hours for crew, adding to the exodus of staff. The ferry system over the past three years has lost 155 more employees than it has hired, the department told legislators this past spring.

While the ferry system has been advertising for stewards for months, it also is paying an Anchorage recruitment firm $5,000 per hire to fill vacant jobs in management and highly skilled onboard positions, such as engineers.

The contractor has brought in “a few in the past week,” Dapcevich said, but he did not have a total number for new hires. The contract pays up to $250,000 to the recruiting firm.

Almost 30 entry-level hires were going through the Coast Guard licensing process last week. But as with so many things these days, “it seems everything is taking longer.” Obtaining a Coast Guard merchant marine certificate can take as long as four months, Dapcevich said.

In addition to the Columbia, the ferry system’s two newest vessels, the Hubbard and the Tazlina, both just a few years old, also are out of service this summer. The Tazlina is tied up in Juneau to save money, and the Hubbard is in the shipyard in Ketchikan for installation of crew quarters so that it can be used on longer voyages.

Neither ship was on the schedule for this summer.

The ferry system is using the Columbia as a “hotel ship for new hires and shift changes” while it is tied to the dock in Ketchikan, Dapcevich said.

While the ship is inactive, the state pulled its 55-foot-long propeller shafts and sent them to Seattle for turning on a large, mechanical lathe. “The shafts are turned and measured to be sure they are straight and true and round per specifications, and any necessary corrections are made,” Dapcevich said. “Repairs to the shafts to fill scrapes, nicks or bumps are made as needed.”

The 49-year-old ship will be laid up for work on its controlled-pitch propellers, maybe later this year, which would keep it out of service for months. “We’re not exactly certain when that is going to take place,” as the state has not contracted for the work, he said last week.

Until then, after the propeller shafts are reinstalled, the Columbia might be available to fill in if either the Kennicott or Matanuska goes out of service for maintenance or repairs, Dapcevich said.

 

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