BATH, Maine — Ray Wing of Manchester, an electrician at Bath Iron Works, leaves his house just after 5 a.m. every day in his 13-person van. By the time he makes stops in Manchester, Augusta and Gardiner, the van is nearly full.
With the scenery monotonous — Wing’s been making the trip for 24 years — they listen to the radio, pass around a newspaper and talk about all manner of subjects from building warships to deer hunting.
“It works out pretty good, except for listening to these guys whine,” joked Wing, who has driven co-workers to BIW for the past 13 years.
The fact of the matter is that for about $6 a day, they’re all saving themselves the considerable expenses associated with a daily 80-mile commute. Just for gas, that drive would cost about $12 a day in a vehicle attaining 25 miles per gallon.
Wing’s commuter system is pretty typical for many of BIW’s 5,200 workers, though for some the distances are longer and the expenses are much higher.
Bath Iron Works spokesman James Demartini said as of the end of 2011, the Bath shipyard’s workforce hailed from 14 of Maine’s 16 counties — all except Aroostook and Hancock. There are even workers from the Washington County towns of Calais and Baileyville, which are some four hours and more than 200 miles away. Demartini said some workers stay with friends or relatives during the week, or in some cases they rent a local apartment.
“The work here is very demanding and requires high skill,” said Demartini. “For those looking for the challenge and the sense of knowing you’re doing something good for this country in building these ships, the commute is worth it.”
Father and son Tracy and Justin Ripley, who come to BIW in a commuter van from the Clinton area north of Waterville — almost 70 miles each way — said BIW’s good pay and benefits outweigh the time and money they spend to get there. According to Dan Dowling, president of Local S6 of the machinists union, which represents 3,000 BIW workers, rookies are paid $14.83 an hour, though at least 90 percent of the union members make $20 an hour and up due to their tenure on the job.
“The pay and benefits are good and there are no other jobs around,” said Tracy Ripley, who has worked at BIW for 34 years. “I’m used to the commute. I like riding better than driving, though.”
According to Demartini, about 91 percent of BIW workers come from the surrounding counties of Sagadahoc (1,500 workers), Androscoggin (1,100), Cumberland (900), Kennebec (800) and Lincoln (575). About 430 workers come from Lewiston and Auburn alone. Though the twin cities are only about 27 miles away, it’s a minimum 45-minute ride, almost twice the average 25-minute commute in the United States, according to Census data. The average travel time in Maine is about 23 minutes, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. About 30 percent of Mainers commute 30 minutes or more, with about 6 percent driving more than an hour each way every day.
Glenn Mills, chief economist for the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research, said BIW has long been known for drawing workers from all corners of Maine, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when the company employed more than 12,000 people. Long commutes are also commonplace for workers at the state’s paper mills, though like BIW the number of jobs in that industry is a fraction of what it once was.
“Longer commutes are typical wherever there’s large dollars available for the blue-collar population,” said Mills. “There are many communities in Maine where the economy has kind of dried up over the years … where textile mills and paper mills have closed down. For people who have stayed in those areas it’s kind of a lifestyle to spend a lot of time driving either to work or to do other things.”
Some of Maine’s other large manufacturers also draw workers from a wide area. IDEXX Laboratories, which employs 1,800 people in Westbrook, told the Bangor Daily News recently that its workers come from 13 Maine counties as well as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Dowling, the BIW union president, said he knows of numerous workers who come from the Belfast and Bangor areas, as well as the far reaches of southern and western Maine.
“We still have plenty of people who drive their own personal vehicles, but the majority of them carpool,” he said. “If everyone drove their own individual vehicle, we’d have a massive parking problem.”
Dowling and Demartini said the parking situation is eased by numerous commuter lots in Bath and Woolwich, some of which are owned privately. BIW runs buses to and from some of the lots, but otherwise doesn’t subsidize workers’ commutes.
Justin Ripley, who leaves his home in Clinton every day at about 4:50 a.m. and is home after 5:30 p.m., said for him the commute is a small price to pay to work at BIW. He hopes to make a career there, just as his father has.
“The money is good, the benefits are good,” he said. “And I love what I do.”