A view from the deck of the fast ferry Fairweather (Stephanie Joyce/KFSK)

Tensions escalated Friday in a labor dispute that has over 400 workers striking and has shut down the Alaska Marine Highway System since Wednesday.

The state sent a letter to the workers represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific warning employees that the state would not be paying health insurance premiums or unemployment compensation if the strike lasts past August 1st.

Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka sent the letter.

“We want these people to be back to work and we do not want them to lose their health insurance and we don’t want our coastal communities affected anymore,” Tshibaka said during a press conference Friday. “This is supposed to be one of the record breaking tourist seasons of the year. We’ve got people stranded in places where they don’t know how they’re going to get back home. We have goods and commerce that are being disrupted and affected in tremendous and harmful ways.”

Tshibaka urged the union to return to talks through a federal mediator.

Department of Transportation commissioner John MacKinnon said eight of the system’s ships that were in service this week have been tied up at the docks. As of Friday morning there were still 225 passengers and 94 vehicles in stranded in ports that were not their final destinations. Those are travelers who are still looking for other alternatives to ferry travel.

“You know this is a peak travel time,” MacKinnon said. “There are only so many seats available on air planes and as you’re probably aware there are a lot of extra flights just to accommodate the summer traffic. And there’s only so much space on these barges heading south.”

As of Friday the state was cancelling reservations through July 30th. That means cancellations so far for over 3000 travelers and over 750 vehicles. The refunded fares from those cancellations is almost $1.2 million.

Robb Arnold is on the negotiating team for the employees and said the main goal is a fair three-year contract for the ferry workers.

“Everything else is just a distraction from what the simple fact is,” Arnold said. “We want to go to work. We have crews waiting in parking lots ready to go back on the ship but we need a contract to be able to do that and we haven’t had one. And that’s what the frustration is. And all these delay tactics and name calling and escalations of hostilities is not helping this process.”

Arnold says a meeting with the state and federal mediator is planned in Juneau for Saturday, July 27.

Other transportation providers are making accommodations for some of the displaced traffic. Alaska Airlines spokesman Tim Thompson said one flight was diverted this week to pick up campers at a Bible camp in Juneau.

“Flight 77 which was able to stop in Juneau pick up about 46 students that were in a camp in Juneau and fly them to Wrangell cause they weren’t able to get passage on the ferry,” Thompson said. “So we were able to divert the flight. We haven’t had any other calls for diversion but those 46 kids we were able to get them out of Juneau down to Wrangell and the flight was able to continue on.”

The airline also is offering a special fare that waives an advanced purchase requirement for walk up passengers in Southeast Alaska and Kodiak through August 4th.

An independent ferry authority in southern Southeast received a request from leaders in Metlakatla Friday to provide service to Ketchikan during the strike. Management of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority was scheduled to meet Saturday on that request. The IFA provides service between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island and had not planned on adding any additional sailings because of the strike.