SSA captains: Tough hours hampering recruitment

Contract negotiations are underway between the Steamship Authority and Teamsters Local 59.

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A car in Woods Hole with a poster on the windshield reading "FAIR CONTRACTS NOW." —Eunki Seonwoo

The signs of strife between the Steamship Authority (SSA) administration and workers have been incrementally rising in Woods Hole and on Martha’s Vineyard in recent weeks. 

Some parked cars at the Woods Hole ferry terminal have windshield posters calling for “FAIR CONTRACT NOW!” and some crew members are wearing pins with the same messaging. A segment of Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs is also lined with yard signs calling for a better contract for SSA workers as the “lifeline” for the Island.

While there hasn’t been a strike, workers are calling for better working hours for licensed deck officers, otherwise known as captains and pilots. 

Some captains say the work schedule in particular is driving away much-needed workers for a ferry line that has struggled to maintain a steady crew, and even further, that the working hours are posing safety risks.

As it stands now, the SSA’s licensed deck officers currently work a schedule of 18 hours within a 24-hour period. The U.S. Coast Guard granted the SSA an exemption over 20 years ago to allow the longer hours. 

Captains reached by The Times said an officer may need to work a 10-hour shift starting late in the morning, then have six hours to rest, and then finish the work period with another eight-hour shift starting the following day. Some shifts can be 12 hours long. 

Crew members may need to sleep in twin-size beds on the boats if they have to be docked on the Island overnight, a time they are not paid for, since it is a rest period. The schedule also leads licensed deck officers to work many weekends and holidays. 

 “No one wants to come here [with that] schedule,” said William Goyette, a SSA ferry captain. “That quality of life is terrible.” 

The ferry captain added that the exhaustion caused by the schedule is beyond just a staffing issue. “It’s really not safe,” he said.

Goyette is hardly alone in his belief. Teamsters Local 59, the labor union representing around 50 licensed deck officers at the SSA, has been pushing for better working hours. They want officers to instead work 12 hours within a 24-hour period. 

After months of negotiations, the teamsters publicly called upon the SSA on June 6 to agree to a contract that would provide better hours for licensed deck officers, which they say is industry standard.

Jeffrey Sharp, president of Teamsters Local 59, said in statements that the shift in hours was needed to give crew members a better work-life balance. He also called the current schedule a “serious safety threat” to both workers and passengers. 

The issue with the work hours is exacerbated by many crew members not living in the Cape and Islands region, due to the high cost of living. Goyette said some crew members live in other Massachusetts municipalities, like New Bedford or Fairhaven, but a large number also live in Rhode Island. Goyette lives in Lakeville, which is nearly an hour away by car from Woods Hole. 

Additionally, Goyette said, some longtime captains chose to retire early due to the tough working schedule.

The SSA has been warned before about continuing with the crew members’ current work schedule. 

A 2018 report compiled by the firms HMS Consulting and Technical, Glosten Associates, and Rigor Analytics on the SSA’s operations — which followed over 500 ferry cancellations caused by mechanical breakdowns in the first four months of that year — also recommended the adoption of a 12-hour work schedule to combat fatigue in crew members, and to make sure this does not contribute to any ferry operation issues. 

“The industry has embraced a strict adherence to the 12-hour rule primarily due to the acknowledgement and understanding that crews are frequently faced with extenuating circumstances which require their rest periods to be impacted. While the 12-hour rule ensures some flexibility regarding these circumstances, the current schedule being utilized at the SSA does not allow for any margin of error,” the report states. 

The report also stated the 18-hour work schedule provides “little rest between watches” for crew members, and was the only one of its kind the consultants had seen in the domestic ferry industry. 

SSA communications director Sean Driscoll declined to comment on whether reduced working hours are under consideration by the ferry line. 

Currently, the SSA has 28 captains and 28 pilots, short of the 29 captains and 31 pilots the ferry line had budgeted for. Driscoll said a total of 36 new hires have been made this year for employees working on vessels, including chief engineers. 

Still, SSA ferries have been hit with multiple cancellations this year from crew shortages.

One of the boats that caused headaches for customers because of cancellations this winter was the freight ferry Sankaty, which typically requires seven crew members to operate. Multiple crew members had called in sick when winter school vacation was ending, and the SSA was unable to find a substitute for one of the licensed deck officers. This forced 150 vehicle reservations to be rescheduled when many people were traveling at the end of school break. 

At the time of the Sankaty delays, SSA communications director Sean Driscoll said the overall manning requirements in the SSA’s labor agreement do not exceed the Coast Guard’s regulations.

The union president, Jeffrey Sharp, has said the current staffing levels and scheduling are not working, a sentiment licensed deck officers have also told The Times. 

“If any one person doesn’t show up, the boat can’t run,” Isaiah Stevens, a SSA captain, said. “That’s a huge issue to [providing] reliable service.”

The crew shortage has recently caught the public’s attention when the Iyannough, the fast ferry that sails between Hyannis and Nantucket, canceled multiple trips on June 2 because a pilot had to call out sick. 

Nearly a week before, on May 28, the SSA announced a reduction in the freight ferry service over the summer due to “concerns over crewing levels.” The SSA eliminated three trips a day during weekdays on the Vineyard route as the freight ferry Sankaty was sent to serve on the Nantucket route, while the Iyannough operates on a reduced schedule during the summer. 

This makes it the second consecutive summer the SSA has had to alter its schedule due to a crew shortage. Last year’s shortage was attributed to a U.S. Coast Guard testing backlog that hindered licensed deck officers from being certified as pilots. 

The Steamship has said that the shortage isn’t just impacting local operations. 

During public meetings, SSA leadership have said a global shortage of mariners, coupled with SSA staff retiring, have contributed to the crew shortage. 

Other ferry services have complained of a global worker shortage as well, including the Washington State Ferries, a service that is run heavily through ticket sales.

“We have experienced serious staff shortages over the past several years that continue to result in reduced service levels,” Ian Sterling, Washington State Ferries communications director, said. “This is showing improvement, but there is a worldwide shortage of trained mariners that the industry is grappling with.”

In New York, the Staten Island Ferry boosted its staffing levels, with a pay increase. Staten Island Ferry captains received a wage boost from $71,000 to $180,000, the daily newspaper Staten Island Advance reported. Other ferry workers also received pay increases. This was the first wage increase for these ferry workers in 13 years. 

“This helps us recruit and retain top talent to operate our ferry system in the face of a global maritime worker shortage,” Mona Bruno, deputy press secretary for the New York City Department of Transportation, said. 

The Staten Island Ferry is funded by its city’s government, but the Steamship Authority, which is largely funded through ticket sales, may have an example in Washington for pay rates. 

Washington State Ferries’ staff masters, a position akin to captains, have a base hourly rate of $88.38, according to the West Coast ferry system’s collective bargaining agreement. Stevens said SSA ferry captains have a base hourly rate of $58.23. 

Driscoll said efforts have been made to recruit more mariners to the Steamship Authority, such as working with maritime academies across the nation. Driscoll said “an extremely competitive labor market and high housing costs” are contributing to the difficulties in recruitment. 

Robert Davis, SSA general manager, reiterated the SSA’s recruitment trouble with the Oak Bluffs select board during a June 11 meeting. He also said the SSA funds the education of crew members trying to become licensed deck officers. This program started in 2017. 

Joe Sollitto, the Oak Bluffs representative to the SSA Port Council, said the crew shortage should have been foreseen months ago, and preparations should have begun sooner. 

Amid the ongoing contract negotiations, captains have denied what has been reported as a so-called “overtime strike” allegedly in the works by licensed deck officers, and reported by the Nantucket Current. The story stated that sources within the SSA had confirmed licensed deck officers were refusing to work overtime shifts they previously would have in an attempt to turn the contract negotiations in their favor. 

“Nobody’s calling [out] at the last minute to disrupt the schedule,” Stevens told the Times.

The SSA’s enabling act actually prevents its employees from going on strike. Since the ferry line transports essential goods like food and medicine, disruption to its service would trigger intervention by the state government. 

The issue was also raised during a June 4 Port Council meeting by Scott Matoian, an SSA captain. Matoian said he took issue with the comments made by Robert Ranney, the Nantucket representative to the SSA board. Ranney was quoted as having said younger crew members were driving the negotiation demands, and expressed suspicions that some licensed deck officers may be calling out sick, knowing the ferry line couldn’t find someone quickly enough to halt a cancellation. 

Matoian said the comments had “lit a fire” under many of the captains and pilots. 

Martha’s Vineyard representatives to the SSA told the Times they had not heard about an overtime strike prior to the meeting. 

Jim Malkin, the Martha’s Vineyard representative to the SSA, said while he couldn’t predict how the ferry line’s recruitment efforts will go, he thinks “it’s going to be a crazy summer” with the staffing shortages. 

Goyette and other captains acknowledged that there are difficulties with attracting recruits, but they feel the SSA could improve with a new schedule. Additionally, Goyette said, the SSA needs to hire more staff to actually consider restructuring the work schedule. 

“It’s like a crossroads,” he said. 

The current licensed deck officers’ contract expires on July 26.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The enabling Act nonsense must stop.

    SSA employees can’t strike but now they can’t be attracted due to pay (58$/hr vs 88$) May be the SSA Lobbyists can arrange for conscription- a draft!
    The most draconian rule is the work hours. Recently a Ltcmdr in CG was publicly quoted ‘ the 18 hrs was allowed due to the routes they run”. Any mariner worth his salt knows the time for max vigilance and alertness is in coastwise, highly trafficked waters.
    That is “the routes they run” and no time for a relaxed watch schedule.

    • Will the union settle for 12 hours on, 12 hours off?
      For $58/hr?
      Will the union settle for 12 hours on, 8 hours off?
      For $88/hr?

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