The Coastal Post - July, 1997

Ryken Responds To Whistlestop Irregularities

BY KAREN NAKAMURA

Last month, the Coastal Post discussed the dismal working conditions of the drivers at Whistlestop Wheel. Pay is at the low end of the scale and affords little in benefits (50/50 health split). When they sought to unionize, a high-powered, anti-union, San Francisco-based law firm was down their necks in a hot minute. Their boss, Ed Ryken, enjoys full health benefits, a pension plan and an excellent salary. But then, he's paid by the County of Marin and enjoys benefits won by SEIU-MAPES, the service workers' union.

Interestingly, it was the Board of Supervisors who set up the deal for Mr. Ryken. This bit of creative financing allowed the non-profit to hire a qualified director. There's little complaint about that point, other than the fact that workers under him aren't paid a living wage.

And there's the question of the ERISA Act which prohibits one employee from having benefits not given other employees. Does this apply to Mr. Ryken and his 100% health and pension plan while drivers receive only 50% of their health benefits?

The appearance of a conflict of interest pops up with Supervisor Giacomini who's now employed by the same law firm that successfully fought off drivers' attempts to unionize.

We decided to ask Ed Ryken about the complaints:

CP: "Besides receiving grants from the Buck Foundation and other charitable trusts, you receive payment from various services around the county. Is that correct?"

ER: "We have a contract with the county, with the Novato General Hospital for special services. That contract is currently being reviewed. We also contract with a couple non-profit groups. And we occasionally get a federal grant to replenish our vehicles, but as the grant writer, I know there's no guarantee on them. You get them or you don't.

"We transport the disabled, through the Golden Gate Regional Center, and are paid according to a standard plan used throughout the state. These fees are paid according to the state's reimbursement funds. We've had trouble collecting in the past, but lately they've been fine. But there's never much money in those contracts."

CP: "Do you think your low wage and benefits package prevents the organization from attracting more skilled employees?"

ER: "With the dollars we have, I think we've done an excellent job in hiring. But keeping those employees is extremely difficult. We really need to work to improve salaries and fringe benefits.

"Last year we did pretty well. We were able to give an average 20% pay raise to our drivers. We'd hoped to do that again this year. I haven't given that up as a goal. I'm going to try to raise that money.

"Even though the $57,000 has been restored, it only brings us up to last year's level. There's no expansion and opportunity for our drivers, especially with higher insurance and fuel costs. As I see it at this time, the county and the agency want to at least maintain the same level . I'm working on this-it's a high priority."

CP: "Is that your wage/benefits arrangement with the County of Marin? And how did it come about?"

ER: "That was an arrangement I was not party to. That was set up by the Board of Supervisors awhile ago. And it appears it's going to change. That's an issue between the Board of Sups and my Board. I don't have a clue, and when I do have a clue, I'll decide what I do."

CP: "What's your answer to accusations that this arrangement violates the ERISA Act?"

ER: "I wouldn't know about that. What's the ERISA Act? I've never heard of it." [After an explanation that all employees must receive the same benefits:] "I'm not an employee of the council. But I don't have a problem with equal benefits."

CP: "The Hansen Brigett law firm hired during the unionizing efforts by full-time drivers is known for its union-busting activities. Why were they hired, who suggested them and how were they paid? Were public funds used?"

ER: "No public funds were used. They were a firm that dealt with unions and were recommended by three or four organizations."

CP: "Do you have their names?"

ER: "No, I don't have them here. I could get them if you want. One was a board member and another was from a transit group we looked to for guidance."

CP: "We also received complaints about Whistlestop Wheels transporting seniors to pack the supervisors meetings during the Buck Center on Aging fight. Who paid for the services?

ER: "The Buck Center hired us and paid the going fee from the time the drivers began and ended, plus the lay-over time. And I'd do it for the Coastal Post to take a picnic or anyone else as long as they paid the fee."