Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Longshoremen union, U.S. Labor Department, investigating payments to "ghost" workers at Port of Tampa

TAMPA — Officially, Felix Santoya worked 726 hours as a longshoreman at Port Tampa Bay in 2016, enough to qualify for holiday pay, pension and to advance his seniority.

But members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1402 say they've never seen or heard of Santoya.

"He's never been on the waterfront," said Charles Gibson, a card-carrying member of the union since 1975.

Santoya is not the only "ghost worker" getting paid for work he didn't do, according to Evan Cotten, a trustee of the union's pension and health care funds. Cotten said roughly 10 other phantom names were on payroll records, some for five years.

That has union members fearing they're losing out on pay and benefits because of corruption.

Cotten's findings were disclosed at a trustees meeting in February and has resulted in an ongoing investigation of the local union by its national organization. The U.S. Department of Labor has also subpoenaed records from trustees, likely for its own investigation.

In a May 16 letter to union attorneys, union trustees said that "ghosting" has been widespread at the port and requested a third-party investigation. WFLA-Ch. 8 was first to report on the letter.

Officials from the union's national executive council met with local union leaders Friday at a hearing at the Holiday Inn on West Shore Boulevard.

"I'd rather not comment on an open investigation," said Alan Robb, assistant general organizer of the union's South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District. "We want to ensure that there are not any improprieties going on."

Local 1402 president James Harrell and vice president Leon Chandler attended the hearing. Both declined to comment on the allegations or the investigation.

Union members perform a variety of work at the port including driving fork trucks, unloading container ships and serving as porters for cruise ship passengers.

Members gather each morning at the union's hall on E Harrison Street in Tampa, lining up in order of seniority to snag work assignments.

Losing out on assignments to "ghost" workers could hit longshoremen in more than their pocket. They need to work at least 700 hours in a 12-month period that ends Sept. 30 to maintain their seniority and qualify for pension and holiday pay benefits.

"This hurts the younger guys behind us," said Gibson, 62. "They don't get the chance to work as much."

Hours worked by longshoremen are recorded by stevedore companies and compiled by Musgrove and Associates, a third-party administrator based in Virginia.

That list is then given to the union to maintain their seniority records. After he was elected trustee around October, Cotten decided to look it over.

As a former union clerk who worked for 50 years at the port, he was surprised to find names he didn't know. Other longshoremen he asked also didn't recognize the names.

Cotten began cross-checking them on social media. He found that six of the names were listed on Facebook as relatives of a manager who worked for Ceres Terminals Inc., a stevedore firm that operates at the Tampa port.

That manager was fired several months ago for violation of corporate policy, according to Zach Zemenick, Ceres director of human resources.

Ceres said that manager is now the focus of several "external investigations" but declined to state which agencies are involved.

"We are fully cooperating with any requests with regard to the investigation," he said.

The two national executive council members who met with union officials are scheduled to write a report on their findings.

"The ILA will not comment until the entire ILA Executive Council receives the report and recommendation," said spokesman Jim McNamara.

Wages for longshoremen are paid with checks. Cotten said he wants to know what happened to all the payments made for "ghost" workers.

"All these people have worked and been paid for thousands of hours and nobody knows them," he said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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