SEATTLE - Records requested by the KING 5 Investigators a month ago show how some ferry employees are boosting their pay by tens of thousands of dollars by driving long distances to and from work. That data is now prompting some lawmakers to propose legislation to stop the practice.
It’s a benefit some ferry workers have had for more than 30 years, getting paid for time and mileage - not to travel on the job - but to travel to the job.
The pay mostly benefits relief workers: deck hands, captains and engineers who fill in when someone is sick or on vacation, wherever and whenever the need is.
That cost to the state has ballooned over the past few years: from $3.8 million paid out in travel time and mileage to ferry workers in 2004 to $6 million in 2009.
The KING 5 Investigators have found that a lucrative union provision, negotiated by the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (IBU) in 2005, is one of the reasons for the increase. The provision, called "dispatch by seniority", allows senior relief workers to choose their routes, wherever they are and "to be paid mileage and travel time" to get there and back home. This benefit was secured through arbitration and was implemented on May 30, 2007.
Records obtained by KING 5 show that under this system, 26 employees were able to boost their pay by 40 percent or more with mileage and travel reimbursements. All but two of those workers are represented by IBU.
The documents also reveal that about 100 workers made from $20,000 all the way up to $72,000 in travel and mileage pay last year by working routes far away from their homes. Of those top 100 travel earners, about a quarter are IBU members. The others are engineers and vessel captains and mates.
The people who boosted their pay the most last year are all relief deckhands, represented by IBU.
At the top is James O'Brian. O’Brian lives in Friday Harbor but we found he commutes to places like the Vashon Island terminal and the Pt. Defiance terminal in Tacoma on a regular basis.
The miles added up. He earned $60,423 in wages in 2009. His travel reimbursement for the year was more: $72,950. That brought his total compensation to $133,374 in 2009.
Michael Kaiwi earned $57,279 in wages last year plus $31,714 in travel and mileage. That bumped his compensation up 55 percent, to $88,994.
George Dalas also increased his pay by 55 percent with travel and mileage reimbursements. His wage for 2009 was $69,726. Travel and mileage added up to $32,682. Total compensation: $108,222.
A representative from the IBU wouldn't go on camera to talk about the travel and mileage reimbursement issue. But he did say he didn’t believe his members abuse the system. He added that they don’t have enough relief workers to cover all the routes, which he says is a big reason for the high cost associated with mileage and travel pay.
Washington State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond says the state’s hands are tied with IBU employees because the benefit was won through arbitration.
When asked if some of the reimbursement numbers looked like abuse, Hammond said, “Well it looked pretty healthy from a benefits package from my standpoint and it's something we've known about for a while. This is a ferry system that’s broke. Our transportation system doesn’t have enough revenue or funding to just maintain and preserve highways and the vessels we have, let alone spend extra money. So we’re looking very carefully at these kinds of benefits and compensations to get these unions more in line with other state unions which don’t have that."
The practice of allowing relief workers to choose their routes is only allowed with IBU members. Employees represented by other unions can no longer pick their schedules by seniority.
Some lawmakers now want to end the practice, which they believe entices employees to get the most they can through travel.
"I don't think my constituents want to pay people to drive to work. And where they've chosen to drive a long way to work, chosen not been required, we certainly aren't going to pay that," said Senator Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley.
Last week she proposed a bill amendment that would take that benefit away.
Senator Curtis King of Yakima sits on the Transportation Committee. He says something needs to be done to make sure taxpayers aren’t being taken advantage of.
"This isn’t about doing damage to the employee, because we do have good employees. But we need to be good guardians of the money,” said King.
Secretary Hammond also stressed that the state asks many of the relief workers to travel long distances for work, especially since 2007 when they took the four Steel Electric Class vessels permanently out of service for safety reasons.
Removing those boats meant travel time and mileage increases for Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) members because additional boat moves were necessary due to a lack of backup vessels in the system.
Ferry engineers, MEBA members, must travel with vessels, as per their contract. Deckhands, represented by IBU, work on routes as opposed to specific boats.