There is no better boat ride in New York City than the one provided by the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, you get a gorgeous view of the Statue of Liberty without having to go to Ellis Island, and there is beer. Summer is an especially perfect time to relish the feeling of stepping onto that giant orange pleasure cruise.
Much more important than its role as my ideal second-date location, however, is the vital one the ferry plays as a commuter service, carrying thousands of people who travel between Manhattan and Staten Island every day for reasons other than sunset happy hour. It’s in this capacity, and during peak rush-hour times, that the ferry has been plagued by a staff shortage that came to a head this week, stranding passengers in huge, hot crowds at Whitehall Terminal and kicking off a war between the ferry union and Mayor Eric Adams, who continues to blame city workers for their own unhappiness.
THE CITY reports that the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, the union representing ferry staff, blames cancellations on staffing issues related to a longstanding labor dispute. Workers are being held to a union contract that expired in 2010 (meaning they also haven’t received a raise since then). Under that contract, the Department of Transportation pays ferry captains $20,000 less a year than the state average. The union reports widespread attrition — one in five — because of this disparity with workers leaving regularly for the private sector or other city agencies.
On Wednesday, when the city announced it had cut back ferry service to just once an hour (down from three times an hour) because so many workers had not shown up, Adams implied that ferry employees were participating in some kind of sick-out or labor action. “To the workers who did not come in today: If you are not sick, New Yorkers need you to come to work,” Adams said at a press conference. The union shot back a strong denial, saying that it had absolutely no knowledge of a planned action and reiterated the ferry’s inability to retain staff. “We’re short more than 20 people right now,” a union rep told THE CITY. “We can’t retain and recruit people under these conditions. There’s more urgency now than ever. It’s only going to get worse.”
Implying workers are simply choosing not to do their jobs now seems to be Adams’s stock response to staffing issues and labor fights. This is also how he responded to the city’s limited pool hours due to the shortage of lifeguards earlier this summer. Brushing off questions about whether increasing low pay would help recruit more lifeguards, he referenced a “nationwide lifeguard shortage” and said, “Lifeguards, they do it because of the love of the swimming, because of the love of protecting people … It’s not about dollars and cents.” But within a few weeks, he had to accept that lifeguarding is a job, not a hobby, and announced a deal to raise lifeguards’ pay by $3 to nearly $20 an hour. Staffing has since increased from 500 to over 800, slowly bringing pools back up to full-time hours. The same kind of logic could be applied to the people who operate the ferries and keep New Yorkers safe on the high seas, whether we are commuting home from work or making small talk with a Tinder date.