Ferry system saves millions in labor costs

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on March 16, 2011 at 10:44 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington State Ferries (WSF) is cutting out some fat. 

The cost of paying employees, which is the agency's biggest budget item, went down last year by $2.5 million. Financial records obtained by KING 5 Investigators show some of the savings were found in overtime, travel time, mileage pay and penalty pay.

"I think our employees want to be part of the solution," said David Moseley, Director of WSF. “I think we're on the right path to turning the system, to turning the tide."

Over the last year, the KING 5 Investigators' series "Waste on the Water" revealed systemic wasteful spending at WSF. The reporters exposed some time sheets loaded with excessive, self-assigned overtime. The money was paid to a group of staff chief engineers who are in charge of the engine rooms, located below deck on each vessel. Records showed their managers weren’t questioning the overtime.

After those stories aired the ferry system put together the agency’s first ever overtime policy. It’s working.

In 2009, the 22 staff chief engineers made a total of $532,976 in overtime. Last year the number fell to $426,532, which is a savings of $106,444.

The staff chief engineer of the ferry Walla Walla, Bruce Cooper, pulled in $58,000 in overtime in 2009. He made the most overtime of any staff chief engineer that year. In 2010 Cooper made $18,000 in overtime.

Overtime throughout the system went down by about $1 million.

"I think we've clearly done a better job of managing our overtime costs," said Moseley.

The KING 5 investigation also found the state paid a small number of employees to drive to and from work, to the same exact office, sometimes for years on end, because their jobs were labeled "special projects." The travel pay went back at least 30 years. Ten days after that story aired, WSF cut off the benefit.

That saved taxpayers about $100,000 last year. In the future, it should save the state more than $340,000 a year.

The most travel pay is made by relief workers. They’re paid to drive to and from work because they fill-in, sometimes at the last minute, to cover shifts when someone is sick or on vacation.

Last year, KING 5 found some relief workers worked the system by traveling as much as possible to make as much as possible. The practice was allowed under their contract with the Inland Boatman’s Association.

In 2009, some relief workers tacked on $35,000, $40,000, and in one case $72,000 in travel pay by choosing to work routes far from their homes. Total travel pay to relief workers in 2009 came to $3,184,918. The amount dropped in 2010 to $2,939,577. That’s a savings of $245,341.

Among all ferry employees, travel time and mileage pay dropped by nearly $500,000 from 2009 to 2010.

"I think that clearly, some light was shown, and I think some different decisions were being made because of the light being shown," said Moseley.

Currently, lawmakers are considering ferry reform bills in both the House and Senate. If they pass, labor costs are expected to go down significantly.

At the same time, ferry union members are voting on newly negotiated contracts. If ratified by members, the governor says that would save the state $10 million a year.

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