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The M/V Tustumena had been in service for less than two weeks when it docked in Homer on July 26. According to an Alaska Department of Transportation press release, the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry had operated with more or less the same crew since it started its 2022 schedule earlier that month.
Kodiak Republican House Speaker Louise Stutes says that there were not enough replacement crew available to operate the ferry.
“Certainly like everybody else, they’re feeling an employee pinch. But in my conversations with the commissioner of D.O.T, he actually had said to me that they were going to be able to staff up the Tustumena, but the problem is COVID,” Stutes said.
The Tustumena is presently slated to resume regular service Tuesday, Aug. 2, departing from Homer and bound for ports around Southwest Alaska. The ferry is the only vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System’s fleet that serves all ports out the Aleutian Chain.
The Alaska Marine Highway System has been struggling to hire new staff this year, even with $5,000 hiring bonuses. Stutes says that irregular service makes it harder to attract candidates.
“When you don’t know if you’re going to be working from week to week, and you have a family to feed, it makes it pretty tough,” Stutes said.
The Tustumena entered a refit and maintenance period last December to extend its nearly 60-year service life even further. The Alaska Department of Transportation is planning to replace the ferry in 2027 at an estimated cost of $250 million.
Stutes says that the Department of Transportation Commissioner has told her that the staffing shortage shouldn’t result in further cancellations for ferries this season.