The Alaska Marine Highway System is not alone in trying to manage with a crew shortage, nor is it a new problem.

But the fear of COVID-19 is making it worse.

“We’ve had a slow progression of loss of crew over the years,” John Falvey, the system’s general manager, said in an interview last week. “COVID has not helped us.”

Fear of catching the coronavirus is an issue for recruiting new stewards who work in the galley and dining area, clean the cabins and public areas, he said. “There tends to be a concern now (of COVID) when you look at customer service positions,” the same as restaurants and retail businesses are finding it hard to attract new hires, Falvey said.

The biggest staffing shortage is among those unlicensed crew positions, not in the engine room or at the controls, he said.

The system needs 502 crew members to fully staff the six vessels currently in use, and was short about 125 as of last week, Falvey said. That includes the Matanuska, LeConte, Aurora, Kennicott and Tustemena, and the smaller Lituya that shuttles between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

The full contingent of 502 trained staff allows for normal crew rotations and illness. Anything less creates problems.

That shortage caught up with the operation on Aug. 11, when the Alaska Marine Highway System had to cancel the LeConte’s northbound sailing out of Juneau due to a crew shortage, disrupting travel plans for 84 people. The vessel needs a crew of 24 to operate.

“Given our overall fleet-wide crew shortage, we do see the possibility of more ‘no sailings’ or sailings being canceled due to this shortage,” a state Transportation Department spokesman said that week.

The department has 50 new hires going through the paperwork to start onboard training, Falvey said, and is receiving an average of two responses a day to its nationwide advertising efforts. “We’re gaining on it.”

Until the system can get back to full staffing, “we’re holding people over,” asking crew to work back-to-back two-week shifts to maintain adequate staffing, Falvey said.

“There is a global shortage,” he said, noting that BC Ferries missed a sailing this month, “which is unheard of for them.” The ferry system, which is overseen by the province of British Columbia, was short more than 100 crew members as of early August when it had to cancel two sailings between Victoria Island and its terminal near Vancouver.

The corporation is actively recruiting for about 60 officer positions and 50 other key positions to ensure it has enough crew members in the event of illness or other absences. BC Ferries President Mark Collins said in a prepared statement Aug. 5: “Unfortunately, the global shortage means qualified mariners are very difficult to find.”

A crew shortage was blamed for delays and cancellations at Washington State Ferries in July, as many longtime employees retired when COVID hit and hiring slowed down, an official said.

“You have people giving up their days off over and over and over again and people not going on vacation just to try to keep the system operating,” Ian Sterling, with Washington State Ferries, told Seattle television station KIRO in July

The station reported that 57 trips had been canceled this year because of staffing shortages — out of more than 10,000 scheduled sailings.

Crew shortages also can compel ferries to operate at reduced capacity. A ferry between Mukilteo, north of Seattle, and Whidbey Island, operated this past Sunday at just 25% capacity due to a crew shortage, Washington State Ferries announced.

While maintaining full service this year is the immediate concern for the Alaska Marine Highway System, Falvey said the state will need to add 100 additional crew for its plan to bring back the Columbia to service next summer.

“If you put a ship out there, you’d better deliver,” he said.

Starting wage for a steward aboard the state ferries is $21.36 per hour for the Alaska-based jobs.