Bill Could Slash Salaries For Alaska Ferry Workers

For nearly 40 years, ferry workers who are Alaska residents have gotten a cost-of-living adjustment, allowing them to be paid more than those who don’t live in the state. Now, a bill getting rid of that salary bonus is moving through the Legislature. And the way it’s advanced has raised hackles.

Because it stretches from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington, the Alaska Marine Highway is one of the few arms of the state that employs outsiders. It’s also the only branch of state government that sets its minimum salary on Seattle’s cost of living, instead using Anchorage or Juneau as a base. The idea is that in-state workers should have a cost-of-living differential added on. That difference can end up being $10,000 or more.

A bill moving through the State Senate would strip that provision.

Bill sponsor Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, says the legislation is not about the difference between Alaska workers and Washington workers — it’s about getting ferry workers in line with the rest of state government.

“My view is it brings more fairness and consistency into those contracts,” says Dyson.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, doesn’t agree. He’s got a few problems with it. For one, he sees it as an attack on Alaska hire.

“The effect of the bill is it gives everyone that works for the marine transportation system that lives in Alaska a pay cut and keeps the salary the same for those living in Seattle,” says Wielechowski.

Wielechowski is also unhappy with how the bill’s moving forward.

The bill comes as the marine transportation unions are negotiating their contracts for the next three years. If the bill passes before an agreement is reached, Alaskan workers could lose $8 million in wages, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Because the bill affects so many people’s paychecks, dozens of ferry workers came to testify before the State Affairs Committee last week. There was a nine-page list of names of people who called in to oppose the legislation. Only four got to speak before testimony was closed to the public.

Wielechowski says he’s never been a part of a committee where that’s happened.

“I think it makes the public cynical when we don’t even give them the right to have two minutes to tell us how they feel about a bill that’s in front of us,” says Wielechowski.

Dyson, who chairs the committee, says closing testimony was a matter of pragmatism. The committee has 30 other bills it’s assigned to hear before the session wraps up, and he says people had the opportunity to offer written testimony or call in if they were not heard.

“We got a lot of work to do, and I doubt if any new information has come out,” says Dyson. “So, we got to limit it somewhere.”

For their part, the ferry workers who showed up were disappointed that they didn’t get to speak, because they have an even bigger concern about process.

Ben Goldrich represents the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and he says cost-of-living adjustments have traditionally been fodder for the bargaining table.

“It’s very strange to be up on the Hill talking about an issue that normally we would be dealing with in negotiations,” says Goldrich.

Goldrich worries that the Parnell administration is using the bill as leverage. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect immediately after being signed into law. That could put pressure on unions to accept a deal before that date to avoid losing the cost-of-living differential during the upcoming contract period.

“If somebody from the Department of Administration were to shop a bill on the Hill, that might constitute what we call an unfair labor practice,” says Goldrich.

The Department of Administration addressed the role compensation played in the Alaska Marine Highway budget during presentations to the Legislature this year. Dyson says that the administration also spoke with him about the cost-of-living differential.

Andy Mills, a special assistant in the Department of Administration, says that does not constitute an unfair labor practice. He says legislators are within their rights to bring labor bills forward, and that the leaders of both chambers have encouraged the Department of Administration to address the cost-of-living differential as a way of tightening the Marine Highway budget in a year where the state is looking at a $2 billion deficit.

“Collectively bargaining agreements is separate and apart from legislative changes to statute,” says Mills.

But Mills says yes, the legislation could affect the bargaining timeline.

“This probably adds pressure to get an agreement before a certain timeline, and we’re having those discussions at the negotiating table and hoping to reach a balanced and neutral agreements with the units,” says Mills.

Mills adds that if the bill passes and an agreement has not been reached, the Department of Administration would be more likely to negotiate for a wage freeze as opposed to an immediate salary cut.

The current union contract expires in June.

The bill was moved out of the State Affairs committee Tuesday, and it got a referral to the Finance Committee on Wednesday.