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Staten Island Ferry Engineers Entitled to Big Salary Boost, Judge Rules

In a victory for the system’s marine engineers, a judge finds these Staten Island Ferry workers are entitled to wages on par with the private sector.

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Passengers board a ferry to Staten Island Ferry at Whitehall Street in Manhattan, Aug. 3, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Dozens of Staten Island Ferry engineers who have been fighting for a pay boost are entitled to a higher wage, equivalent to what their private sector peers earn, a city administrative judge ruled on Tuesday.

The decision by Judge Faye Lewis of the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings impacts technicians making up half of the Staten Island Ferry crew union at roughly 50 people.

Staten Island Ferry workers have been working under a contract that expired in 2010, one of 152 public sector bargaining agreements that former mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to settle in the final years of his tenure. The agreement, which covers about 100 captains, mates and engineers in the Staten Island Ferry system, is the only contract still pending from the Bloomberg era. 

Marine engineers operate, design and maintain ships and below-deck infrastructure, and are often at sea. U.S. Coast Guard standards require that two engineers, one chief engineer and one marine engineer, be on duty while the ferry is being operated.

Lewis’ decision, which only impacts those workers, does not settle the bargaining dispute: Talks between the workers and the administration of Mayor Eric Adams are set to resume Monday, Aug. 29, with mediation.

“I find that marine engineers and chief marine engineers should be paid the rates of prevailing wages and benefits commensurate with those paid to chief engineers and first assistant engineers on U.S.-flag Maersk cargo vessels,” Lewis wrote in a decision dated Aug. 23.

MEBA declined to say how much Maersk-employed engineers earn under the current agreement. Salaries for the Staten Island Ferry system’s chief marine engineers, its highest-earning maintenance workers, cap at $64,231 under the expired contract, whose terms remain in effect. 

“We are extremely pleased with OATH Administrative Law Judge Faye Lewis’s decision,” said Roland Rexha, secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, in a statement on Wednesday. “Judge Lewis’s decision is a triumph for our crew and upholds our longtime concerns that [Staten Island Ferry] engineers and other officers are paid well-below other professional mariners although their work obligations and skills are equal.”

Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said in a statement the administration is “reviewing” Lewis’ ruling. “We are looking forward to our mediation with the union and hope it will assist us in reaching an agreement.”

The decision comes amid slowly moving bargaining negotiations between MEBA and the city Office of Labor Relations, which failed to renew a contract that expired in 2010 but whose terms remain in effect to this day.

Chloe Chik, a spokesperson for city Comptroller Brad Lander, said: “We are reviewing the decision from OATH and will make a determination in the coming weeks.”

Boost Before Bargaining

During an eight-day OATH trial, the comptroller and the city’s labor relations office argued that the Staten Island Ferry crew members were entitled to the prevailing wage of the HVAC operators and stationary engineers in a building, presenting Local 94 operating engineers as a comparable example.

Meanwhile, MEBA argued that the ferry system’s engineers were entitled to the prevailing wage set for chief and first assistant engineers employed by U.S.-flag Maersk-Line Ltd. cargo ships, who are also represented by MEBA.

Lewis sided with the union, ruling that the ferry system’s engineers and those on cargo ships should be bound by the same prevailing wage standards because the two basically have the same job. 

“The actual work performed by the marine engineers on the [Staten Island Ferry] and the U.S.-flag Maersk ships is essentially the same, and the licensing requirements are identical. By contrast, there are substantial differences between the work and licensing requirements of [Staten Island Ferry] engineers and stationary engineers/building HVAC service operators in Local 94 buildings.”

The decision gives workers a boost, as bargaining is on deck to resume Monday.

This month, the city and the union agreed to a mediator to help them resolve the 12-year impasse. Unlike an arbitrator, who listens to facts and evidence from both sides and issues their own decision, a mediator assists both parties in a bargaining dispute to help them reach an agreement.

The mediator chosen by the city and the union, Al Viani, oversaw mediation of the 2005 transit workers’ strike and has been a neutral member of the city Office of Collective Bargaining since 2015. 

Unfinished Business

The contract dispute covering some 100 ferry crew members – including engineers, captains and mates – goes back to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in the final years of his third term failed to settle any of the union contracts that had lapsed under his tenure.

Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, quickly corrected course, settling contracts representing 60% of the city’s workforce in his first months and nearly all of them by the time he stepped down — except for the one covering the Staten Island Ferry workers.

This month, Robert Linn, the OLR commissioner for most of de Blasio’s tenure until his retirement in Jan. 2019, told THE CITY he didn’t know why the matter was not solved under his watch.

“This is a unique group  that is still open under three administrations. And the question is, what is the reason for that?,” Linn said in an Aug. 5 interview. “In the de Blasio administration, for 151 out of 152 bargaining units, we found solutions…. We didn’t for this one, and I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

Rexha previously told THE CITY that the contract dispute — coupled with a national maritime worker shortage — has led to profound attrition problems for the ferry service, with nearly one in five crew members retiring or leaving for work elsewhere in the past two years alone.

When staff shortages led to service slow-downs earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams suggested the workers were engaging in an illegal sick-out — a charge the union denied. 

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