Lawmakers act to roll back state ferry workers’ travel perk

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire and state lawmakers are stepping up efforts to change practices within the state ferry system that allow employees to earn thousands of dollars a year commuting to and from their jobs.

On Wednesday, the state Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill giving the governor power to negotiate less generous benefits for union ferry workers in talks on a new contract later this year. Senators specifically called for an end to a perk allowing workers to ride ferries for free when off-duty.

The vote came a day after Gregoire requested State Auditor Brian Sonntag conduct a performance audit of Washington State Ferries’ timekeeping, payroll and scheduling processes.

She also asked John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Association, a national trade group, to lead a panel of experts in ferry operations in sizing up the state ferry management practices and offering ideas for improvement. She wants a report by Aug. 1.

Gregoire also directed her budget office and the Department of Transportation to prepare a report that compares ferry workers’ salaries and benefits with those of other state employees. The information is due to her in April and certain to be part of upcoming talks with unions representing most of the 1,700 workers in the ferries division.

“Efforts to reform and cut costs have been going on for a while. We want to make sure what we’re doing is working,” said Viet Shelton, spokesman for the governor. “The travel reimbursement issue is something to be looked at in the process.”

This rush of activity stems in part from inquiries from media and private watchdog groups about the practice of compensating state ferry workers for their time and mileage traveling to and from terminals for daily shifts.

In 2009, a deckhand with a $60,000 salary pulled in an additional $73,000 through this benefit. Another 90 people — deck hands, pilots, oilers and engineers — collected at least $20,000 apiece in expense reimbursements.

Under both agency policies and union contracts, most ferry workers are assigned a homeport, and whenever they are sent to cover a shift at another port they are reimbursed for mileage and paid their hourly wage during the time spent commuting.

When vessels are moved to a different route — as was done this week when a boat went down on the Seattle-Bremerton route — engineers assigned to the vessel travel with it and are entitled to the reimbursement.

Relief workers, who are primarily deckhands, pilots and engine room personnel dispatched to fill a shift on short notice, rack up the largest chunk of reimbursements.

Some of them do not have standing routes and select shifts based on seniority. They can choose a job far from their home that would lead to a sizable reimbursement. On the other hand, less senior employees can get the shifts far from their home. In either event, this can add up.

All together, $6.4 million was paid out in 2009 and it angered lawmakers.

“Clearly there is some light being shed on things that indicate we need to continue to make improvements,” David Moseley, head of the ferries division, said Wednesday.

He said he’s looking forward to what recommendations emerge from the audit, the experts, the lawmakers and conversations with the workers.

On Wednesday, the Senate narrowly voted down an amendment to impose restrictions on the reimbursement payments but did add wording to ban ferry workers from riding for free off-duty — once current union contracts expire.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 3209, now goes to the House for final action.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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