The Staten Island Ferry system transports 24 million passengers each year — tourists and commuters alike. Yet the people operating these iconic ferries have been working without a contract for over 12 years, meaning that as city employees, they’re still earning benefits and wages that were agreed to in 2010. Mayor after mayor has passed on settling the contract dispute between their union, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, and the city’s Department of Transportation, leaving Staten Island’s critical ferry system dangerously understaffed.
Now, workers have a possible win in sight.
In August, a city administrative judge ruled that Staten Island Ferry engineers are entitled to a wage equivalent to what their peers in the private sector earn. Now, it’s up to City Comptroller Brad Lander to affirm or reject the court’s decision.
Without imminent action, workers say the entire system could collapse.
Since the U.S. Coast Guard mandates that vessels must be staffed with at least one captain, one assistant captain, and a number of other positions such as deckhands, if the city is unable to properly staff a vessel, it cannot legally operate.
A MEBA official described the practical implications of the staffing shortage: “If you have 1 out sick, 1 on vacation, and 1 PTO, the ferry can’t run because there’s no back up.”
Staten Island Ferry workers demonstrated the fragility of their industry this summer when approximately half of the city’s ferry captains and a third of the assistant captains called out sick, causing the city to dramatically reduce service and leaving residents stranded during their commutes.
Rather than using the workers’ collective action as an opportunity to take steps to solve the ongoing labor dispute, Mayor Eric Adams blamed short staffing on workers not coming to work.
“As with other employers nationwide, we have faced staffing challenges and have already been making regular adjustments to Staten Island Ferry service,” Adams said in a statement. “Now with this event, we are saying to the workers who did not come in today: If you are not sick, New Yorkers need you to come to work.”
After a decade without a contract, the ferry workers who have stuck around are being pushed to the brink — putting in 12 hour shifts, 6 to 7 days in a row to backfill the short staffing. The system is so short on qualified staff that ferry management has asked workers to sleep in their cars so that they can cover shifts the next morning, union officials said. On top of that, ferry workers are not being given sufficient meal breaks in compliance with state law, forcing them to work up to 12 hours without a guaranteed break.
Kevin Hennessey, a retired assistant ferry captain with more than 40 years on the job, explained how exhausting the job had become in recent years. “We used to work anywhere from 8-12 hour shifts. Now 12-hour shifts have become the norm,” he said. Hennessey said it was common for him and his colleagues to drive home from work with the music blasting and the windows down — just to keep them from falling asleep at the wheel.
Ferry workers are required to have licensing on par with private industry ferry staff, yet they are paid far lower than their private industry counterparts. Ferry workers in Washington state, for example, are paid roughly double what their peers in New York earn.
The recent court ruling ordering a prevailing wage for NYC ferry workers only applies to two of the five job roles covered under MEBA’s contract with the city, so even if the city complies with the ruling, numerous ferry workers will still be left working without a raise for over a dozen years.
But workers say it’s a clear sign that the mayor should move quickly to settle the dispute once and for all. MEBA’s was the only municipal city contract that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not settle before leaving office, and former Mayor Bill De Blasio settled every other such contract as mayor besides this one.