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Food service on Triangle route might yet be saved

The dark and gated galleys on the Washington State Ferries triangle route this week did not mean the food service had closed even earlier than Dec. 31.

In fact, they actually gave hope that hot coffee and snacks may remain on the boats next year.

Although Sound Food Cafe & Bakery announced this week it would stop serving food on the Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy ferries at the end of the year, signs posted on the closed galleys this week indicated that talks were underway to keep them open.

“I understand that a tentative agreement has been reached,” said Celia Schorr of WSF, referring to contract negotiations between Sound Food general partner Bill Dorn and officials from the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), which represents all ferry employees, including those working in the galleys.

According to a WSF press release, Dorn explained in a recent letter that after a year of serving commuters and tourists on the route, he was unable to turn a profit. Though he had said previously that his gourmet sandwiches, in particular, had become a hit, he was still unable to make money in the venture due to the high cost of providing medical insurance to his workers on the boats.

“Under the Jones Act, insurance for maritime workers is extremely expensive, something that small companies like mine cannot afford,” Dorn said before launching the service last year.

He explained that the usual minimum premium of $75,000 was well beyond his reach.

The Jones Act is a federal statute enacted in 1920 that provided seamen the right to sue employers after an injury. Since they are covered under federal liability, seamen in Washington state can receive higher awards, but policies are more expensive for employers than L&I coverage.

Failed union negotiations reportedly stymied other potential vendors seeking to take over food service on all WSF routes after former provider Sodexho pulled out of its 10-year contract in January 2004, claiming the service wasn’t profitable enough.

Dorn succeeded in reaching an agreement with the IBU in time to begin serving food last May, but a lack of insurance coverage stalled the process and kept it in a holding pattern the rest of the summer.

Despite finally negotiating for more affordable health coverage, Dorn reports his business was still breaking even at best. He said he attempted to decrease the cost of the medical benefits program, but the offer was rejected by his workers and their representative, the IBU.

“With no other reasonable area for cost savings, Sound Food intends to cease operation on Dec. 31,” Dorn wrote. “(We) regret this decision (to end service), but it is necessitated by the fact that (we are) unable to operate the service at a profit.”

However, contract negotiations resumed this week, and Schorr said Dorn reported that he and the IBU representatives would meet again on Wednesday.

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