WSDOT is hiring, but can it keep people from bolting for better pay?

Jan 24, 2023, 4:56 AM
Ferry in service in the San Juan Islands off Seattle, Washington (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The Washington Department of Transportation is back to pre-COVID-19 staffing levels, but can the agency keep those hires from leaving?

There are now more than 7,100 people working for the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT). That’s the highest level since 2019 and the Covid pandemic. You might remember that 402 WSDOT employees lost their jobs over the governor’s vaccine mandate, which, coupled with the retirements and other lost employees, put the agency well below its needs.

Computer malfunction delaying reservations for San Juan ferries

That lack of employees really put a damper on WSDOT’s ability to provide critical services like ferries and road maintenance.

Deputy secretary Amy Scarton sat before the Senate Transportation Committee last week to highlight the return to 2019 staffing levels.

“In 2022, in the ferry system, we have hired more than 233 employees,” Scarton testified. “That’s more than 10% of the workforce.”

That also more than makes up for the 132 jobs lost to the vaccine mandate, but it takes time to get those new ferry employees up to speed and actually serving on the boats. And there has long been criticism that the ferry service doesn’t do enough to help those new hires work up the chain of command and get promoted. That’s something Scarton said is being addressed.

“We have created six more training programs tailored to meet the needs of new staff and existing staff, and we’re looking at developing two more,” she said.

One of the largest issues facing the ferry service and WSDOT, in general, is the low pay and benefits.

WSDOT human resources director Jeff Pelton told senators that the pay gap is real.

“Our exit interview data indicates that over 40% of those departing the agency in this category do so for higher pay,” Pelton said.

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State ferry workers get paid about 26% below the private sector, according to WSDOT. Civil engineers that work and design our roads also make about 26% below the market. Highway maintenance workers earn 13% less than their private sector colleagues.

“It’s very hard for us to keep pace with the private salaries and the signing bonuses that several organizations are offering, but what we do have to offer is a wonderful culture, a great strategic plan, and people who are really dedicated to public service,” Pelton said.

So it sounds like WSDOT can get people in the door, but it has a hard time keeping them when they can make more money faster somewhere else.

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WSDOT is hiring, but can it keep people from bolting for better pay?