Thanks to higher gas tax, state agency is hiring - With $4 billion in projects, Department of Transportation recovers lost jobs



Olympia, WA - The Legislature in April approved an increase of 5 cents a gallon in the state's current 23-cent gas tax. It was signed into law by Gov. Gary Locke in May and takes effect July 1.

Together with an increase in the sales tax on automobiles and on truck-weight fees, the gas tax will raise about $4.1 billion for new highways and other transportation projects in the next decade.

Washington State Department of Transportation workers who lost their jobs last year after voters rejected Referendum 51 are in luck. With a gasoline tax increase set to kick in, the department wants to hire many of them back.
Last fall, days after Ref. 51 went down in flames, WSDOT started pink-slipping engineers who were set to design the highway projects that would have been funded by the ballot measure's proposed gas tax increase of 9 cents per gallon.

In the months after the referendum's failure, WSDOT released 151 people from its payroll -- some temporary and probationary workers, but also a good number of permanent full-time workers. The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 17, which represents WSDOT engineers, estimated up to 100 engineers statewide were directly laid off. These were mostly newer engineers with only a few years of seniority.

"These were people, a lot of them just out of engineering school, many who had relocated here for these jobs," said Vince Oliveri, a union representative with Local 17. "You had people, trained professional engineers, who were taking clerical positions with the DOT just to get by."

Engineers in the WSDOT's Olympic region, which includes South Sound, weren't hit as hard by the eliminations.

That's because a disproportionate number were needed to work on the Tacoma Narrows and Hood Canal bridge projects.

WSDOT also had plans to eliminate an additional 350 or so jobs by the end of 2004, and 300 more by the end of June 2005.

But this year's legislative approval of a smaller but still significant increase of 5 cents per gallon in the gas tax, which takes effect July 1, changed all that. The new tax will help fund nearly $4 billion in new highway projects over the next decade -- projects that will need engineers to design them.

The "overall picture for our work force is brighter than it has been for a long time," Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald wrote in a June 12 e-mail message to department employees. "WSDOT is now, and is going to be, a good place to work."

Gradual decline seen

It's not clear how many of the roughly 150 eliminated jobs will return to the rolls, though it probably won't be all of them. The department currently has 2,468 employees in its construction engineering program, and expects needing to increase that to 2,602 employees for the 2003-05 biennium, which starts July 1 -- an increase of 134 employees.

Some of those positions likely will be filled with temporary workers and by approving more overtime pay, so as not to too drastically increase work force levels again, since design work won't be as needed in future years as more of the new gas tax projects get designed and rolling.

"We don't want to hire people to get the nickel package rolling and then have to lay them off again in three years," said Linda Mullen, a WSDOT spokeswoman. "What we want is a base work force so we don't have to keep going through this roller coaster."

Indeed, department projections call for a gradual decline in the number of workers in the construction engineer program, to 2,413 workers in 2005-07, 2,061 in 2007-09, and 1,912 in 2009-11.

"We will have to be flexible and creative in matching staff to workload as specific projects go through their delivery cycles in different areas and regions of the state," MacDonald wrote in his message.

But the short-term news is good for some of the workers who were laid off a little more than six months ago. The department has begun contacting many of them, Oliveri said, to offer their old jobs back. While some have moved on to other jobs and other states, he said there are still plenty who never found better work and will jump at their old jobs.

"There were some rude awakenings" last year, Oliveri said. "We're fortunate that this has happened in a fairly short period of time. These were people who thought the WSDOT was a place they could come and build a career. Hopefully now a few of them still can."


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