WSDOT cancelled ferry service to avoid daily bad press

May 6, 2022

Public records show that when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) significantly cut back ferry service in early October of 2021, a week before they fired over 400 employees due to the state vaccine mandate, they did so to protect their own image.

In a press release dated October 13th, head of Washington State Ferries (WSF) Patty Rubstello said, “To better reflect the service we can currently provide and to minimize last-minute cancelations due to a lack of crew, we made this difficult decision to adjust our schedules.”

Internal emails, however, suggest the decision to cut back service and inconvenience riders was a PR strategy – and against the governor’s recommendation to hold off on service cuts.

After a meeting with Governor Inslee about WSF staffing shortages and route cancelations due to staff protesting the vaccine mandate, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar debriefed his communications team. “Governor wants to hold off on service reductions for now,” he said. “I strongly recommend making reductions now. It will be a story one time. Daily missed sailings will be a daily story. Gov’s team is working on it. More to come.”

Remarkably, Millar tells his team that concerns about bad press override the governor’s service concerns.

Stephanie Cirkovich, WSF’s Director of Community Services and Planning, responded in agreement with Millar. “Reductions are going to happen one way or another, so I appreciate you advocating for them to be more methodical and preemptive. And the longer we don’t reduce service, the more dramatic the reductions will look later October.”

WSDOT officials like Cirkovich knew that the vaccine mandate-related firings on October 18th would dramatically impact service, but wanted to hide the impact on the agency’s performance.

Publicly, the agency watered down the impact of the mandate in exacerbating their staffing shortage by pointing to 2020 hiring freezes and 2021 “nationwide hiring challenges, an aging workforce near retirement, and a competitive labor market.”

Even while knowing, as the governor did, that these widespread ferry service cuts would be disruptive, Secretary Millar decided instead that PR and the image of the agency was more important than providing service to riders.  

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