By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — Lawmakers want to end a practice of paying some state ferry workers for their travel to and from terminals, a benefit that netted one deckhand nearly $73,000 in 2009.
On Friday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to give the governor a stronger hand to negotiate benefits that would be less generous and more in line with other state employee unions.
Two days earlier, the Senate acted on another bill that goes further by singling out for elimination a perk that provides workers free ferry passage even after their employment ends.
Lawmakers have been aware of these benefits for a while. They were motivated to act this week out of concern of public backlash over the news that Washington State Ferries paid nearly $6.4 million in reimbursements to 700 of its 1,700 workers last year.
Topping the list is one relief deckhand who received $72,950 in travel reimbursements alone, which was $13,000 more than his yearly salary. Twenty-five other employees collected more than $30,000 apiece, including a relief master earning $118,000 to steer vessels safely into port who amassed $40,634 in expenses, according to records obtained by The Herald.
“We have a lot of fine workers. But a lot of us have known for a long time there has been some abuses,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, sponsor of the Senate legislation. “We can’t afford to keep paying this.”
As for the lifetime pass for free ferry rides, she said, “It might have been appropriate at one time, and we can’t take it away from those who have it now, but you don’t have to keep giving it.”
Gordon Baxter, a maritime labor lobbyist who represents unions covering the majority of ferry system employees, said that perk is used on a space-available basis only. Reimbursements are going to workers whose presence is required on a vessel, he said.
“This is not a lot of thieving by employees and mismanagement by the system. There are good reasons for the numbers on those reports,” he said.
Baxter said workers understand lawmakers’ concerns and why they view this as a potential source of savings.
“We want the system to save money and operate efficiently. We are trying to do our part without taking a major hit to our members,” he said.
This practice dates back to when the state took control of the ferry system from the Black Ball company in 1951.
Employees who work on the vessels are assigned a homeport, such as Mukilteo, and are paid for the time they spend driving to a different terminal, such as Edmonds, for a shift. The mileage reimbursement rate is 55 cents a mile.
Engineers are assigned to a ferry, and if the vessel is moved to serve a different route for any reason, the engineer stays with the boat. This can lead to some reimbursements.
Under contracts with the Inlandboatmen’s Union and Masters, Mates &Pilots, members are paid for mileage and the time they spend driving. The distance between terminals and the travel time from one port to another are fixed and included in the collective bargaining agreements, according to ferry spokeswoman Marta Coursey.
The largest chunk of money paid out in reimbursements is going to relief workers who are primarily deckhands, pilots and engine room personnel dispatched to fill a shift on short notice. Relief workers under the Inlandboatmen’s Union do not have standing routes and choose shifts based on seniority.
Some can deliberately select a job far from their home — even when there may be a less senior relief worker who lives closer. Some less senior employees can get the worst shifts far from home. In either event, this can add up.
“There are some employees who have historically chosen work schedules that result in significant travel time and mileage pay,” Coursey wrote in an e-mail. “This was a compensation element that employees secured in arbitration and it is a major issue in our current contract discussions.”
Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond stressed that the $6.4 million in 2009 was out of a $215 million operating budget. Moreover, she said, the figure is historically high because of a greater moving around of vessels on routes and because the closure of the Hood Canal Bridge forced some employees to make much longer trips to work.
The bills provide useful “tools” to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of the ferry system, said Viet Shelton, spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire.
He declined to comment on whether the governor is concerned about the large sums of reimbursements and free ferry perks.
“We’ve got to try to reduce costs in all aspects of the operation and this is included,” he said.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com