"Overtime Strike" By Officers A Big Factor In Steamship Authority's Staffing Problems

Jason Graziadei •

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The M/V Iyanough departs Nantucket under stormy skies. Photo by Greg Hinson | NantucketStock.com

Sunday was a beautiful day with near-perfect conditions and the Steamship Authority’s fast ferry had no mechanical issues.

But the M/V Iyanough didn’t run any of its scheduled trips the entire day.

The pilot who was scheduled to operate the vessel called out sick, and the Steamship Authority had no other qualified personnel available to fill in. And so all four of the Iyanough’s roundtrips to Nantucket were canceled, leading to sports games getting nixed and headaches for travelers left scrambling to book on the Hy-Line or grab a seat on one of the car ferries. All those with reservations on Sunday were promised a full refund.

Steamship Authority Port Council member Nat Lowell described the situation as an “unprecedented disaster” for the boat line.

It was just the latest in a series of issues that have cropped up for the Steamship Authority as it addresses a shortage of licensed deck officers - the captains, pilots, and mates responsible for navigating the boat line’s vessels to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. That shortage has already prompted the Steamship to announce a reduction in fast ferry service for the summer and to swap out its newest car ferry for one of the oldest freight boats in the Steamship's fleet on the Nantucket route.

The causes of the licensed deck officer shortage have been much discussed - everything from retirements, long-term illnesses, challenges in recruiting, the complexity and time necessary for licensing new officers, and the fact that one of the Steamship’s crews has been down in Alabama training on its recently acquired freight boats.

But there’s one factor that has been a big influence on the Steamship Authority’s ongoing staffing issues that hasn’t been talked about: an informal “overtime strike” by the boat line’s licensed deck officers.

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The sign taped to the door of the Steamship Authority's Nantucket terminal on Sunday.

According to multiple sources at the Steamship Authority, the deck officers have informally agreed to decline overtime shifts that they previously would have taken in an effort to get the boat line to agree to its demands for better compensation and improved schedules in a new contract that is in the collective bargaining process.

The informal “overtime strike” has led to numerous canceled trips in recent months and may have been one of the primary factors in the Steamship Authority’s recent decision to scale back fast ferry service and take another boat offline on the Vineyard route.

“Deck officers are refusing to work overtime they would normally work to bring the Steamship to the table and meet their demands in negotiating a new contract,” Lowell said. “It’s kind of holding us hostage a little bit.”

The Steamship Authority’s licensed deck officers are represented by the Teamsters Union Local 59, based in New Bedford. A group of approximately 50 captains, pilots, and mates is currently in collective bargaining negotiations for a new contract, as its existing deal with the Steamship expires at the end of July. Local 59 president Jeffrey Sharp commented broadly on the ongoing negotiations but declined to answer specific questions about the overtime strike.

“We’ve made numerous proposals on quality of life issues,” Sharp said. “They (Steamship Authority management) have issues and some of the representatives have said they have problems attracting new staff. We’re trying to address it to make it more appealing to attract people. I would say there are numerous issues. Scheduling is one of the bigger ones.”

Are the licensed deck officers executing an informal overtime strike?

“Our bargaining units are following the provisions written in the contract,” Sharp said.

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A Steamship Authority employee. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

According to the terms of the Steamship Authority’s enabling act, licensed deck officers can’t fully go out on strike (which would prompt government intervention as outlined in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 150B), but an “overtime strike” can have some of the same impacts and, potentially, force the Steamship Authority to meet the union’s demands.

The Steamship’s crews feel overworked, underpaid, and that the existing schedule is simply not conducive to a modern-day lifestyle, sources told the Current.

“There are layers to this,” said Rob Ranney, Nantucket’s representative on the Steamship Authority’s Board of Governors.

“There are a good number of captains and pilots who are older and approaching retirement age, and it’s the newer hires that are new to the process who are driving some of the demands Some of the demands are…” Ranney trailed off. “I shouldn’t get into it.”

Does Ranney see evidence of an overtime strike by the licensed deck officers?

“I don’t know,” he said. “In some cases, it seems like that’s the case. There are some suspicious things. Someone will call out sick at the last minute knowing there’s not time to find someone to stick in their spot. So the boat gets canceled…I guess the idea being, is forcing the Steamship to come to the table and meet demands. I don’t know that that’s happening but it seems like it could be in some cases. It’s hard to pinpoint any of these (cancellations) on one thing.”

Ranney emphasized that many factors have led to the current situation. Both he and Lowell stressed that the complexity of operating the Steamship Authority under strict state and federal rules, along with the scheduling of a unionized workforce, is difficult to convey to the traveling public that just wants the boats to run on time with enough space to accommodate them.

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Passengers aboard the Steamship's M/V Iyanough. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

“This is the perfect storm,” Ranney said. “Taking one crew out because it’s short-staffed disrupts their schedule and the next one. It’s complicated, but it doesn’t take much to disrupt the flow. It’s really hard to predict that going into a season because you don’t expect people to suddenly retire or have a medical issue or call in sick. It’s very hard to find a replacement. We also have crews down south with the new boats…The whole system is stretched thin.”

Ranney says he hears the criticism from the island community, but that there are some unrealistic expectations, including that the Steamship Authority should just hire more deck officers.

“You can’t just hire someone off the street to fill in,” Ranney said. “In many cases, it’s years of training, testing, licensing, and certifications. It takes time to build people up through the system. Even doing everything perfectly right, you might still get someone who doesn’t want to advance to captain and wants to remain a pilot. It gets complicated real quick.”

Recruitment is something the Steamship Authority has been focused on for years, he said, but “the Steamship is competing with other ferry operators for these jobs, and frankly, students out of maritime academies are not signing up with Steamship. Not because it’s not a good job or it doesn’t pay well, but because it’s boring. They don’t want to go back and forth to Hyannis, they want to go around the world on a cargo ship or whatever…The pool of qualified people is really small.”

While the contract negotiations continue, one Steamship Authority staff member told the Current to expect things to get worse before they get better.

“Pay your help or lose your help, it’s that simple,” the employee said. “Service is going to be a mess this summer.”

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The M/V Iyanough rounding Brant Point. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com
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