Commuter checks could be mandated in S.F.

Matthew Quach is one of many San Francisco residents who said business owners should be forced to provide pretax deductions for employee commuting expenses.

“I would drive less and save the environment,” he said Thursday.

Under afederal law, employers can provide employees the benefit of deducting up to $115 of pretaxed wages for a commuter check, which an employee can then use to purchase monthly transit passes.

But San Francisco officials, in an aim to become a transit-first city, are pushing legislation that would force employers in The City to offer the benefit of commuter checks. Introduced by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the bill is pending before the board and is expected to be debated in August.

According to the bill, a commuter check would be provided as vouchers for transit passes. Money is deducted from an employee’s salary and is used by the employer to purchase the commuter checks. The checks are offered free of charge as an employee benefit while the disadvantage to an employer are the administrative costs in offering the program.

Under the voluntary federal program, the savings vary. A $45 Muni fast pass would cost an employee about $32, while a $64 BART ticket costs about $45, according to the Department of the Environment, which contracts with a vendor to process any worker employed by The City that chooses to use the benefit.

But many business owners say the benefit of commuter checks is not well-known.

Steve Sarver, owner of San Francisco Soup Kitchen, said he offers employees commuter benefits and is supportive of the federal program, but against any requirement that forces businesses to offer it.

“I am in favor of the government promoting it more,” he said.

Deputy Director of the Department of Environment David Assmann said the department contacted 900 large businesses in the past year, asking them to offer the benefit. He said there are about 8,000 businesses that currently offer the benefit, but there is no way to determine how many employees use it.

San Francisco resident Nick Bonnell said he has used a commuter check in the past, and thought Mirkarimi’slegislation was a good idea, but understood why smaller businesses would be reluctant to take on additional responsibilities.

“Large companies should sponsor that,” he said. “If it helps people get off the road, why not?”

Quach said commuter checks would allow him to sock funds away for retirement or “maybe to go to lunch.” He started working for a coffee chain restaurant about one month ago and said he doesn’t think his employer offers the benefit since he was not told about it.

Do as I say, not as I do: City workers not enrolling in program

While San Francisco may force businesses to offer a commuter check program for employees, it is falling short of enrolling city workers in its own pretax transit voucher plan.

This fiscal year, the Department of the Environment set a goal of enrolling 7,800 city employees in a commuter check program that allows use of pretax wages to defray costs of public transit. Only 3,900 enrolled.

David Assmann, deputy director of the Department of the Environment, said that despite the unmet target, the department has made significant progress but he acknowledged that “it’s still hard to get people out of their cars.”

Last year, a survey of city workers found that about 40 percent commuted to work alone in a car. The city currently employs approximately 28,000 workers; about 3,000 replied.

Approximately 24 percent commuted to work using BART, while about 20 percent took the bus.

“We are not happy with that at all,” Assmann said.

City employees, he said, are starting to show more interest in the benefit program because of the rise in gasoline prices, and he expects The City will continue to enroll more employees. Almost half of the 28,000 workers employed by The City live outside of San Francisco.

City workers who enroll in the so-called commuter benefits program can deduct up to $115 per month from their paychecks, pretax, to pay for transit as well as vanpool expenses, according to the Department of Environment.

The number of city workers who enrolled in the commuter check program does not include those city workers who may opt not to fill out the paperwork to enroll in the program, but instead purchase their transit tickets out of pocket. — Joshua Sabatini

By the numbers

The City may require employers to offer a commuter-check program for workers.

$45 Cost of a Muni Fast Pass

$45 and $60 Cost of BART High Value Tickets, which include bonus rides

$20-$110 Range of commuter check values available

13 Months a commuter check is valid

$42, $63 and $84 Value of commuter checks available for BART parking

$115 Maximum monthly amount that can be deducted from paycheck for transit

$220 Maximum monthly amount that can be deducted from paycheck for parking

$500 Maximum yearly savings for transit commuter checks

$1,000 Maximum yearly savings for parking commuter checks

Source: Accor Services, BART, Muni

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