The Working Waterfront

Angry words exchanged at ferry board meeting

Service staff verbally abused, managers say

Tom Groening
Posted 2018-07-17
Last Modified 2018-07-17

Tempers flared at the July 12 meeting of the Maine State Ferry Advisory Board about, ironically enough, angry ferry passengers.

The board serves as a citizen advisory group, representing the interests of islanders before ferry service managers. The service is operated by the state Department of Transportation, and serves Frenchboro, Swan’s Island, Islesboro, North Haven, Vinalhaven, and Matinicus.

Recent meetings have been charged with tension over the ferry service’s new rate structure. Though the on-island discount has been eliminated, most island passage rates for tickets purchased on the mainland were reduced. Islesboro, however, saw a sharp increase in its rates. The Waldo County island town is suing the state over the rate hike, which ferry service managers touched on briefly at the meeting.

But the flash point for the heated response from ferry service staff came over the conduct of some passengers.

Andrew Dorr, Vinalhaven’s town manager, representing that island on the board, asked service manager Mark Higgins about policy on passengers bringing hand carts aboard. Higgins cut Dorr off, saying he had not had time to read a letter that Dorr had forwarded on the matter earlier in the day.

Dorr persisted, saying he only wanted to know what the service’s fee tariff stipulated on such carts. Higgins again interrupted Dorr and spoke sharply, saying ferry crew increasingly were seeing large luggage-type carts being brought aboard by walk-on passengers, and crew were charging them appropriately.

Dorr said he’d drop the subject.

The discussion quickly moved to how passengers were treating ferry crew, apparently prompted by the complaint Dorr raised from a constituent about fees for carts.
Jennifer Smith, who works in DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt’s office and who has been attending recent ferry advisory board meetings, explained that ferry staff have had to endure abusive behavior from passengers.

“Almost daily, our employees are being verbally accosted,” she said. “We are being sworn at, shouted at.” Smith herself has been insulted online, she said, being called a bitch and another vulgar term, and criticized for how she dresses, which she said amounted to “slut-shaming me.”

Higgins echoed those observations, as did Jammie Smalley, who works in the ferry terminal office. Smalley said crew members and parking lot staff “had people stick cameras in their face,” and were sworn at. With tears in her eyes, she said “The way they treat us is despicable.”

Advisory board member Lisa Shields of North Haven acknowledged an incident in which a passenger had been drunk and disorderly, but said that was the exception, not the rule.

She also said that ferry staff have been rude to passengers—an observation that has been made by other board members in the past—and that “if staff had their guard up,” it might have escalated conflicts.

Earlier this year, shortly after Higgins took over as ferry service manager, he told the board that staff would be trained in customer service skills.

Smith argued that islanders and other regular ferry users also have a responsibility.

“It’s impossible to improve customer service if the islands don’t figure out how to be civil,” she said.

The heated comments from Smith and, to a lesser degree, Higgins, abated quickly, but the conversation continued.

Conflict between passengers and ferry staff may be inevitable. Ferry service rules, many of which relate to parking lot and vessel safety, are regimented, but regular ferry users have developed informal approaches, such as placeholder vehicles in the waiting line.

Vinalhaven’s Dorr said a deputy headed to the island was denied boarding by a ferry service employee because the man was not in his car the required 15 minutes before the vessel’s scheduled departure. Effective law enforcement on the island relies on the deputy being on-island, he said.

Dan McNichols, the ferry service port captain, said he has had to speak to the deputy about following rules, but Dorr noted that the ferry service tariff calls for law enforcement vehicles to get priority boarding.

McNichols also told of an encounter on Matinicus, in which he said a local lobsterman “got in my face.”

Smith said ferry staff are “just trying the best they can at $12 an hour,” and that the rudeness on the part of passengers has been ongoing. “It’s been out of control for years. This is not new.”

In answer to a question from advisory board member Dennis Damon, Higgins said that ferry users can be banned by the service, and in fact, two were recently banned.

Shields urged the ferry service to be more visible on the islands. “Come out and talk to people,” she said.

Higgins said the service will continue its customer service training for staff, but noted that abusive passengers take their toll. “It does affect you, because you’re only human,” but staff try not to punish the next customer for the bad behavior of another.

Smith said she urges staff to “find the gray” areas in the regulations.

In other business, the board learned that:

  • the service “didn’t quite make the 50/50 fare box to highway fund contribution” balance in revenue in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to DOT’s Mike McKenna; such a balance is required by state law.
  • ridership had dropped 2 percent in 2016-2017 from 2015-2016, though a look at numbers over five years showed it was “pretty stable,” according to Higgins.
  • the newest ferry will be named for the late Richard Spear, a former long-time employee of the service.