Tustumena spends week in Homer due to staffing shortage

The M/V Tustumena in Unalaska. (Photo by Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The M/V Tustumena had been in service for less than two weeks when it docked in Homer on July 26. Due to a crew shortage, that stop in Homer lasted a full week.

According to the state Department of Transportation, the Tustumena had operated with more or less the same crew since it started its 2022 schedule. And Kodiak Republican House Speaker Louise Stutes says there weren’t enough replacement crew available to keep running the ferry.

“Like everybody else, they’re feeling an employee pinch,” Stutes said. “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.”

The Tustumena is slated to resume regular service on Aug. 2, departing from Homer and bound for ports around Southwest Alaska. It’s the only state ferry 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 more ferry cancellations this season.

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