Roughly 300 state workers employed at licensing offices across Washington are eligible for a yearly shoe allowance; something the union told KIRO Radio they need to offset the cost of footwear that meets uniform requirements.
The allowance was written into union contracts for Washington State Department of Licensing employees sometime in the 1960's or 1970's, according to a department spokesperson.
Currently, the allowance is $97 per year and is taxable as income. Not all who are eligible apply for the benefit and those who do must submit paperwork and receipts.
For example, a woman in Whatcom County said her friend at the DOL used her allowance to buy a pair of Birkenstocks - a brand of German-made sandals, shoes, and clogs that range in price from $79.95 to $175.
In 2012, 239 DOL employees were reimbursed an average of $88.50 for footwear. The total amount billed to taxpayers that year was $21,145.92, according to numbers provided by the department.
"For decades, our staff members who work in driver licensing offices and are subject to our uniform policy, have been eligible for an annual shoe allowance to help offset the cost of shoes that meet our requirements," said spokesperson Brad Benfield. "We do not specify a particular brand or style of shoes, but they have to be neutral in color, have minimal decoration, and can't be flip-flops."
Benfield said the shoe allowance only applies to staff and supervisors who work in driver's license offices.
The employees are represented by Professional and Technical Employees Local 17. According to the union, the allowance is about having shoes that are functional and prevent injury.
"The practice of providing or paying for uniforms is standard in many military, law-enforcement, public-safety and customer-service positions," union representative Natalie Kaminski wrote in an email. "The Department of Licensing provides uniform items for licensing service representatives to wear at work. There are no shoes provided as part of the uniform, so DOL provides an annual shoe reimbursement for employees to go out and buy their own. The footwear they buy and wear to work must conform to the agency's safety standards."
Benfield said employees at driver's license offices "spend a lot of time walking around outside in the parking lot with moving cars and getting into cars that are owned by our customers."
"So one of the things we have in place as a safety precaution is a requirement that they have shoes that they can use that will protect their feet in those situations," he said.
Benfield acknowledged that some DOL employees allowed a shoe allowance likely do not leave the office to go outside as the state has contracted out a majority of driver's license testing to private companies.