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State to close lucrative loophole for ferry workers

A deckhand working for Washington State Ferries had a yearly salary of $60,000, but he ended up getting $73,000 in travel expenses last year.

That kind of money is possible because of loopholes with a particular union which the Washington State legislature is now looking to close.

In a live interview on KIRO Radio's Dori Monson show, Washington State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said when the ferry system came under state control years ago a lot of maritime union practices came along as well.

One of those practices was baseball-style arbitration in which pay and other compensation are resolved not by negotiation, but by an arbiter who sides with one party or the other.

In 2005 the Inlandboatmen's Union won an arbitration session allowing them to send out their relief workers by seniority, not by location.

"So now by seniority employees who are relief workers can select which runs they service," Hammond said, "and when they do that they get travel time and mileage."

On Friday, the state House passed a bill that would give the governor a stronger hand in negotiating worker benefits. The aim is to move ferry worker benefits closer to what other state employee union contracts provide.

Two days earlier, the Senate acted on another bill that goes further. That bill aims directly at the ferry worker perk that provides free ferry passage even after their employment ends.

Washington State Ferries paid nearly $6.4 million in reimbursements to 700 of its 1,700 workers last year.

The deckhand who received the $72,950 in travel reimbursements isn't alone. Twenty-five other employees collected more than $30,000 apiece.

Hammond said there have been times where it's necessary to send a relief worker to a specific run or dock to keep the ferries running, "That I do think is in the state's interest, but where we have come up against this arbitrated decision we have finally said 'this isn't working for us' and the legislature is helping us now."

© 2010 The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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