Lawsuit: No pay for commuting Wash. state troopers is unlawful

Troopers claim the policy violates wage laws, because they are "on duty" at a "prescribed place of work": their marked cars


By Jared Brown
The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. — Three state troopers from Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties claim the Washington State Patrol's policy of not paying them for commute time in marked patrol cars violates wage laws, according to a class action filed in Pierce County Superior Court last week.

The practice is unlawful, the troopers say, because they are essentially "on duty" at a "prescribed place of work": their marked cars. Commuting troopers must follow WSP policies — such as wearing seat belts and refraining from personal errands — pick up emergency dispatch calls and respond to any disabled vehicles, collisions or traffic violations they witness en route to work.

Commuting troopers must follow WSP policies, which includes picking up dispatch calls and responding to any vehicle incidents while en route to work.
Commuting troopers must follow WSP policies, which includes picking up dispatch calls and responding to any vehicle incidents while en route to work. (Photo/Washington State Patrol Facebook)

Even if troopers aren't actively working during their commutes, the lawsuit contends research shows "that even the mere presence of a law enforcement officer in a marked patrol vehicle can greatly improve the safety of motorists, particularly on high speed roadways."

A 2005 report from the Maryland State Highway Administration identified research that shows stationary patrol cars with lights activated were more effective at reducing average speeds than patrolling police vehicles, which are seen by fewer motorists. On the other hand, the report found patrol cars circulating through traffic might have a greater impact on individual drivers because motorists tend to accelerate after passing a stationary police vehicle.

The troopers' lawsuit was preceded by a $400 million tort claim filed with the Department of Enterprise Services in April. The lawsuit asks for an unspecified award of back pay, damages and attorney fees.

A WSP spokesperson declined to comment about the allegations or describe department policy, citing the pending litigation.

The named plaintiffs representing a class of current and former WSP employees are Linda Allen, a Pierce County resident and trooper since 1988; Joseph McClain, a Thurston County resident and trooper since 2000; and Jacob Payne, a Lewis County resident and trooper since 2014.

[RELATED: Louisville SWAT members' attorney to continue fighting for on-call backpay]

The lawsuit claims WSP policy allows troopers to request payment for emergency responses during their commutes, but the department often underpays or declines to pay them in response.

WSP received multiple complaints from troopers about the policy, according to the lawsuit.

Darrell Cochran, an attorney from PCVA Law representing the troopers, told The News Tribune that WSP expects troopers to be constantly on guard without compensating them fairly.

"Now is not the time for the State to be shortchanging our first responders, taking a nickles and dimes approach to compensating the men and women who serve as Washington State Patrol troopers," Cochran wrote in an emailed statement.

"We want the best of the best serving as troopers. And you can only get that by being fair. It is time to do right by paying them for all the time they put in on the job," Cochran's statement continued.

The state has not filed an answer to the lawsuit, which alleges wage theft and unjust enrichment.

Court records show a preliminary trial date in March 2024.

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(c)2022 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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