Feds say Alaska ferry system violates family leave act

Crew members tie up the fast ferry Fairweather in Sitka. It and other marine highway ships will sail less in the next budget year. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska)

The U.S. Department of Labor alleges the Alaska Marine Highway System violates federal leave laws.

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A civil suit filed in U.S. District Court alleges the ferry system miscalculates time off mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

State officials deny that claim.

The act requires large employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave when a child is born, fostered or adopted. Terms also cover care for a seriously ill family member – or the employee him or herself.

The conflict surrounds what are called “rotational employees.” Those are ferry staffers who work for one or more weeks straight, then take the same amount of time off.

The federal complaint, filed Aug. 16, said the ferry system counts such time off as part of the 12 weeks leave required by federal law. It said that’s illegal.

U.S. Department of Labor attorneys in Anchorage and Seattle did not return calls for comment by this report’s deadline.

Cori Mills, with Alaska’s Department of Law, said the ferry system did nothing wrong.

“The state continues to assert its long-standing interpretation of the Family (and) Medical Leave Act, and will continue to support that in the court action,” Mills said.

Mills said the state is aware of the complaint, but has not been served with an official copy.

The complaint asks the court to order the state to follow the Labor Department’s interpretation of the rules.

It asks that any fired employee be reinstated and compensated for lost wages and benefits. It also calls for any worker who lost pay or leave time to have it restored.

The suit does not say how many employees have been affected or what jobs they held.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.