Free rides for Illinois tollway employees will continue for the foreseeable future following a judge's recent ruling.
About 75 percent of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's 1,519 workers use company-issued transponders to pay for trips back and forth from work. The perk costs the agency $455,000 a year.
After officials in 2011 announced plans to pull the plug on the freebie, known as nonrevenue transponders, several unions filed a grievance with the labor relations board. As a result, the agency let the practice continue while awaiting a decision.
A ruling by Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Stevens on Feb. 19 sides with the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Her decision still must be voted on by the labor board itself but tollway officials said they are rethinking their strategy at a Thursday board meeting.
In issuing her opinion, Stevens noted that the nonrevenue transponders "provide an economic benefit associated with (employees) work and wages." Evidence submitted indicated that "removal of the transponders would result in an economic loss for the employees should they continue to utilize the toll system."
And since use of nonrevenue transponders affects hours and wages, their discontinuance should be part of contract bargaining, the judge found.
The free transponders were supposed to have been nixed Jan. 1, 2012, the same day the tollway nearly doubled rates. "We wanted to make sure we were sensitive to the additional expense our customers will incur," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said in 2011.
The agency hasn't changed its mind on the issue. "We believe it's inconsistent with our goal of increasing transparency," Lafleur said Thursday. But given the reality of the judge's ruling,"we'll have to decide what the strategy is and ultimately we have to go back to our unions and bargain over it," she added.
Currently, there are 1,141 nonrevenue transponders being used by staff members. As to what will happen to employees with transponders who aren't in unions, Lafleur said she wanted to wait and see what the results of the negotiations are. In general, "when these issues come up, we should treat our workforce consistently," she said.
Some workers do not take advantage of the perk. "Some employees have opted not to take them," Lafleur said.
The agency does audit transponder use and has fired or suspended employees who abuse the privilege and required reimbursement.