Ferry system advisory board recommends emergency hiring powers

The Alaska Marine Highway System Operations Board — an advisory panel created last year — wants the Dunleavy administration and the state Legislature to grant emergency powers for hiring personnel to the ferry system’s marine director.

The system has suffered chronic shortages of workers for more than two years, forcing cuts in service to coastal communities. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants’ reports, hiring bonuses and paying a private firm to recruit new employees, the system remains far short of its hiring needs.

The board approved the motion without dissent at its meeting Friday, Aug. 25.

Board members also approved a second motion, recommending that the state fund an apprenticeship and training program for new and existing ferry workers using federal and state money.

The board has been under pressure to propose hiring solutions to management. As of Aug. 18, the Alaska Marine Highway System was “still down 10 wheelhouse positions,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the ferry system. The ferries were short 54 licensed personnel, including engineers, bosuns, able bodied seaman and junior engineers.

A leading issue in hiring personnel has been that other maritime employers pay better. That is particularly true for the Washington State Ferries, Craig Tornga, the Alaska system’s marine director, told the board.

The advisory panel’s motion calls on Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature to grant “emergency powers and ongoing variances to personnel processes to provide the (Marine Highway System) director the flexibility to offer comparative wages and compensation packages for targeted positions both permanent and temporary.”

The state cannot unilaterally change the wage scales for ferry workers — they are covered by union contracts.

Many Alaska ferry jobs pay about 10% more than aboard the Washington State Ferries. The starting wage for a first-year ordinary seaman, a deck worker aboard the vessels, is $25.66 an hour in Washington versus $28.42 for the Alaska Marine Highway.

Washington workers, however, are due for a substantial raise under their contract effective July 1, 2024, to $27.20 an hour, narrowing the pay gap with Alaska, where an ordinary seaman will go to $29.24 under their contract next year.


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