While the state of Washington struggles with a $5 billion deficit and a ferry system that's nearly bankrupt, KING 5 has found another sweet deal for certain employees in their continuing investigation “Waste on the Water."
When state employees have to work beyond their shift, they’re paid time-and-a-half for the extra hours. Most state employees, that is. Ferry workers have a different set up. They're paid double time for overtime hours. Ferry workers represented by unions are the only public employees in the state with a deal like that in their collective bargaining agreements.
According to a study out this month prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation, the cost of paying ferry employees double time, over time-and-a-half, was $1,337,000 in 2010.
Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and other lawmakers are trying to strip away ferry employee extras such as double time pay in proposed legislation. The bills would eliminate dozens of benefits negotiated into collective bargaining agreements; forms of compensation that ferry workers have depended on for more than thirty years. In addition to double time pay, the proposed cuts include taking away penalty pay, some travel time and mileage pay, compensation for meals and free ferry passes for ferry workers and their family members.
In hearings this month in Olympia, legislators played clips from KING 5’s ongoing investigation “Waste on the Water." Lawmakers said the stories led to the proposals. In twenty stories aired so far, KING 5 has exposed millions of tax dollars wasted at Washington State Ferries (WSF), a management culture that allowed the waste to occur, and safety concerns that weren’t addressed until the reporters shed light on the issue.
Ferry union leaders and members blasted the proposed laws and the KING 5 stories in hearing testimony before legislators.
"Please don't overreact because of how the media has portrayed the workers of the Washington state ferry system as overpaid, underworked and abusing the system," said Terri Mast, Secretary Treasurer of the Inland Boatman’s Union which represents deck workers. “Most of those (issues in the stories) are very isolated incidents and are issues that our unions have taken and have already dealt with," said Mast.
WSF engineer Alex Zecha testified that the KING 5 stories were unfair and inaccurate. He was abruptly interrupted by Senator Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Islands, during his comments.
"I think taking a batch of unsubstantiated stories that are wholly lacking in context or objectivity and using that to fix (funding problems is inappropriate),” said Zecha.
“Madam Chair, I'm going to interrupt him. To say they're unsubstantiated is not accurate. We've researched some of these things and there are bad actors that blew it," said Ranker.
While legislators work to remove extras from ferry contracts, the KING 5 Investigators have uncovered another perk for a group of ferry employees in the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association (MEBA) contract. For 30 years, the state has paid about 70 ferry workers - engine room employees who work below deck - to drive to and from work once a week, every week they work. Those collecting this pay work on boats based out of Anacortes and Port Townsend.
The state first struck the deal in the 1970's when Anacortes and Port Townsend were considered remote locations. The pay is to entice engineers to work in these out-of-the-way locations. The benefit is not available to non-engine room employees, such as captains and deck hands.
Engineer Alex Zecha, who testified before the Senate committee, benefitted from this perk when he was working on the Steilacoom II, which was based out of Port Townsend. Because Zecha lived out of the Port Townsend area, he collected the once-a-week travel money. In 2009, which is the latest data available, he earned nearly $10,000 extra for that travel time and mileage pay.
The KING 5 Investigators estimate, for all 70 engine room employees, the state pays approximately $400,000 a year for those weekly round trips. Over the last three decades, that would add up to millions of dollars.
"There's no way we can afford these benefits. It's just outrageous," said Amber Gunn, Director of the Economic Policy Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative budget watchdog group based in Olympia.
Gunn says the pay is particularly insulting with over 9 percent unemployment in the state.
"People will move where the work is. That's standard in the private sector,” said Gunn. “Why are we treating ferry employees like they are on a pedestal? They are untouchable. They are in their own special category of we’re going to be treated better than every other state employee. It’s unfair to taxpayers and it’s unfair to other state employees.”
Ferry employees defend negotiated benefits
Ferry employees say they work hard for and deserve their negotiated benefits. Many testified that WSF has the best safety record of any ferry system in the country due to their well-qualified work force. The workers said cutting their forms of compensation will result in losing some of those well-trained employees.
“For the first time in 27 years, I’m seeing engine room employees quitting and taking outside, off shore jobs for more money and better benefits,” said Bruce Cooper, the staff chief engineer of the ferry Walla Walla. “Being a U.S. merchant mariner cannot be compared to other state employees. Our world is different. (The bills) are an attempt to gut our contracts and conditions. This will make it difficult to fill jobs in the future when better jobs and conditions exist,” said Cooper.
Cooper told legislators ferry workers are unique because they must abide by a host of state and federal regulations. They include earning licenses, ongoing safety training such as firefighting, and security clearances mandated by TSA.
Others testified that lawmakers are going too far in their proposals and that they’re targeting the wrong group. Several said that inefficient managers are to blame for the financial woes of WSF.
"I don’t want to throw stones but we don’t have a management system that wants to work with us,” said WSF ticket taker Patty Snyder.
The KING 5 Investigators have found that to date, WSF managers have not attempted to negotiate the weekly travel time and mileage benefit out of the contract with the Marine Employees Beneficial Association, which represents engine room employees.
“The legislation being proposed seems to be in response to recent news stories concerning WSF,” said Zecha. “A quick review of those stories…quickly reveals either a distinct lack of context and objectivity in the stories or a clear and distinct pattern of negligence on the part of management. Ironically enough, all of the proposed changes in the bill adversely impact rank and file members exclusively.”