The Washington State Ferry system is correcting inaccurate information its director released in advance of a KING 5 Investigation last week.
On Monday, November 21, the KING 5 Investigators reported on pay increases for some ferry workers recommended and supported by State Ferries management. While the average American will receive a 3% increase in 2017 and federal employees are set to see a 1% bump in pay, two groups of ferry employees are on tap to get 25% and 28% pay raises over the next two years. The groups are approximately 25 staff masters (also known as captains) and 25 staff chief engineers who oversee operations below deck in the engine room.
Minutes before the 10 p.m. broadcast on the November 21, a ferry worker forwarded an internal email to KING written by the top ferry executive, Asst. Secretary of Washington State Ferries Lynne Griffith. Griffith sent the communication to all ferry employees. In it she criticized the upcoming news report for disregarding data that supported the double-digit raises.
“The media report tonight is based, in part, on comments from disgruntled former employees and ignores the recruitment and retention study that clearly demonstrates the gap in their compensation. I believe this type of media coverage does not accurately reflect how you are valued by our organization and the communities we all serve,” wrote Griffith.
Griffith did not communicate to the approximately 1,600 employees that neither she nor any member of her executive team had shared any sort of recruitment and retention study with KING 5. The reporters met with Griffith and her top management for approximately one hour to discuss the raises and other new perks for ferry workers four days prior to the broadcast.
In the email to staff, Griffith pointed to the survey as the core reason behind the proposed wage hikes. “(The raises were) based on factual information from a comprehensive salary survey,” wrote Griffith. State Ferries offered the survey as the basis for the increases in communications to the Governor’s Office as well.
KING 5 has since analyzed the 128 page 2016 Marine Employees’ Compensation Survey, compiled by the state’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), the budget wing of the Office of the Governor. KING has found the survey does not support the proposed increases. In fact, staff chief engineers for Washington State Ferries make 20% more, not 25% less, than the comparable group cited in the study. State Ferries staff masters earn a base wage of 0.1% less than the comparable group, not 28% less.
After alerting State Ferries that the data didn’t support the increases as outlined to the workforce and the Governor’s Office, the agency’s communications director said that was a “communications error.”
“It was not fair of us to put that in the email,” said Ian Sterling, Communications Director for State Ferries. “I apologize for that….it’s erroneous to say the salary increases were based on the survey. It’s not a useful document (in this context).”
Sterling said he’d done additional research to find better comparisons than those used by OFM, as the 2016 Marine Employees’ Compensation Survey found only one comparable maritime entity to compare to WSF salaries – the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Sterling said his analysis comparing WSF salaries to four companies – three private off shore outfits and one public – found State Ferries staff chief engineers earning a base wage of between 19% and 37% less than the others. The comparisons did not take into account overtime and other forms of compensation routinely earned by the State Ferries employees.
“This is the labor pool that we must compete in to attract and retain these critical employees,” said Sterling.
Sterling said he was not at liberty to provide KING with source documents regarding the comparisons as financial information from private industry is proprietary.
Asst. Secretary Griffith told KING that the raises were needed for several other reasons as well:
– The positions are critical for safe and efficient operations of the boats.
– Many of these employees are approaching retirement age, and a higher pay is needed to attract people to replace them.
– Some employees with less responsibility earn a base wage that’s higher than the staff chief engineers and the staff masters
“So it’s an equity issue and a fairness issue and it’s the right thing to do,” said Griffith, who came to State Ferries in 2014. “This is recommended by management and the reason it was, is because one, we have the best of the best. I want to keep them, and I want to be sure we’re attracting the best of the best in the future.”
A staff chief annual base wage is about $99,000. But with overtime, travel time and other perks, these workers routinely take home much more. In 2015 the average take home pay was approximately $150,000 per year. One of the top earners collected $171,000 in total compensation. Assuming this staff chief continues earning overtime and other added payments, the 25% raise would increase his total compensation to $214,000 - more than double his base wage.
“Everybody was really blindsided by this (proposed increase),” said a current ferry employee who did not want to be identified. “Someone who is already making almost $200,000 a year and you’re going to give them a 25% increase? That’s a BMW every year. And that’s a game changer when it comes to pensions.”
The co-chair of the state’s Joint Transportation Commission was surprised to learn of the proposed raises.
“How do you justify this in a system that is hurting for money?” asked Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. “It’s a system that we’ve had to scrape and find money so that we can replace the boats and we can keep this system alive. This doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The collective bargaining agreements have been agreed to by the unions representing State Ferries employees and management, but the legislature has the final say.