An ongoing employee shortage may force the Hubbard ferry to halt its day service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway next week, part of a more widespread series of problems involving staffing and the condition of vessels, top officials with the Alaska Marine Highway System said Friday.
The Hubbard, christened as the ferry system’s newest vessel last month after being put into service in May, is still suffering operational “growing pains,” Keith Hillard, a captain aboard the ship as it was departing Haines, told the AMHS operations board via Zoom during its meeting Friday afternoon.
“There are definitely some safety things that need to be addressed in the next yard period,” he said.
Furthermore, Hillard said the ferry system as a whole “still has some serious payroll issues going on, which is hampering our ability to recruit and keep people.” That poses an even more short-term risk to the Hubbard’s operations.
“We’re at risk of shutting the Hubbard down this next week because we can’t get another licensed engineer onboard,” Craig Tornga, the ferry system’s director, told the operations board.
The 280-foot-long Hubbard has experienced turbulent waters since it was first envisioned as a shuttle ferry in northern Lynn Canal in 2006. Initial construction was completed in 2018, but it remained out of service for more than four years until crew quarters were added to meet employee working hours requirements.
But 60% of the ferry system’s jobs were vacant in May, higher than any other state agency, and Tornga told the operations board the current shortages are in licensed positions such as people working in the wheelhouse and engine room. Entry-level positions are fully staffed, he said.
A key reason for the shortage — beyond the wider issues affecting employers in Alaska and elsewhere — is the ferry system’s payroll system is faulty, Tornga said.
“Crews members not getting paid or not getting paid properly,” he said. “We’ve lost employees due to payroll issues.”
The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is trying to remedy the problem by setting up payments through the department’s system, and “we can’t have it soon enough” because union representatives with the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association are telling members not to accept jobs at AMHS, Tornga said.
Southeast Alaska ferry service has already suffered one significant disruption this summer when the Columbia was taken out of service for a week at the end of June for repairs, affecting a round-trip loop extending from Skagway to Bellingham, Washington. That vessel has two more maintenance periods scheduled during the next week, although Tornga said both are expected to take hours and not disrupt service.
However, “every week it seems like something else on there we’re repairing,” he said.
Currently six of the ferry system’s nine vessels are operating — and that’s only possible because crews are working beyond their scheduled shifts, Tornga said. Two ships are getting mechanical service and the Kennicott — which AMHS officials said might be used to replace the Columbia if that vessel is out of service for an extended period — is currently idle due to a lack of staff.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.