Damon Proeger says he’s carving out a pretty good living as a caddie at Chambers Bay Golf Course. The 35-year-old from Orting works about five days a week at the Scottish links course owned by Pierce County. He carries players’ bags, gives them advice, encourages them and hustles to the ball after the shot to tell them the distance.
Proeger, who worked as an electrician before the course opened in June, makes $140 to $150 per day as a caddie. His single-day record is $200.
Chambers Bay classifies the 180 or so white-shirted caddies as independent contractors. It doesn’t pay a salary, nor does it give benefits, but it allows them to keep their own schedules.
For Proeger, the flexibility means he has more time with his girlfriend, a teacher. “Any caddie out here wouldn’t complain,” he said.
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But someone did complain to the state Department of Labor & Industries. The department investigated and said the caddies should be considered employees of the $21 million public course.
If the ruling sticks, some caddies could end up losing the pay and independent working conditions they’ve come to expect, according to Pierce County and course general manager KemperSports.
It also would mean higher operating expenses for the county, which would have to cover benefits and other employee costs even if caddies are paid minimum wage, said County Executive John Ladenburg.
Ladenburg wrote a letter to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this summer in search of a sympathetic ear. The county and Kemper-Sports plan to meet with L&I officials Friday in Olympia.
Ladenburg said the change would detract from the traditional assisted golf experience the county tries to offer at its 18-hole, cart-free course. Fewer caddies might be available, which could hinder the course’s ability to attract major professional events, he said.
By most accounts, Chambers Bay has had a successful first summer, with 30 percent more golf rounds in the first two months than county officials had projected. But reconfiguring the caddie program could bring a setback.
“That would change a lot of things,” Ladenburg said. “What it changes for the county is we did not anticipate having a budget for that. We would have to change the contract with KemperSports.”
The problem materialized in June when L&I received a complaint filed on behalf of a Chambers Bay caddie.
“We got a complaint that they were working for tips and being paid below minimum wage,” said L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer.
The department assigned a field agent to investigate. The agent’s initial impression was that the caddies should be considered regular employees, Fischer said.
FLEXIBLE SCHEDULES, GOOD TIPS
A regular, 9-to-5 schedule doesn’t fit most Chambers Bay caddies, who range from high school students to retirees, said Brian Haines, the program’s caddie master.
“Our program consists of gentlemen and ladies 65 years old to 16 years old,” he said. “I don’t think that works for everybody.”
Chambers Bay’s program is modeled after those found at other golf courses across the state and country, including Tacoma Country & Golf Club and the Seattle Golf Club.
As independent contractors, Chambers Bay caddies do not receive money from the golf course, Haines said.
Their pay comes directly from golfers, who shell out a flat $35 fee for a caddie to carry their bags. The golf course suggests an additional gratuity ranging from $20 to $100, depending on the caddie’s experience.
Golfers are not required to use a caddie.
The caddies call in and make their own schedules, said Jeff Marsh, Chambers Bay’s assistant caddie master. It keeps a database of about 180 individuals; about 30 work the course on a given day.
Chambers Bay officials estimate that about one-third of players who visit the course ask for a caddie. The course hosts between 100 and 220 golfers a day.
“Almost every single day, we’ve had more bags than caddies available,” said Marsh, who used to caddie for PGA pro and Puyallup native Ryan Moore.
But there are days when rain, cold and other factors can put a crimp on the number of golfers. That forces some caddies to sit and wait for a player in need of their services.
Similar to selling cars, a caddie’s success depends on his or her motivation, Marsh said.
INTEGRAL TO THE EXPERIENCE
Mark Luthman, KemperSports’ regional director of operations, said making caddies employees would disrupt Chambers Bay’s operations.
KemperSports operates more than 75 golf courses across the country. Most of the courses with a caddie program, including Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, use the independent contractor model, he said.
“A lot of people caddie because of the flexibility,” Luthman said Friday from his office in San Francisco. “Many people have full-time jobs.”
“That would reduce the number of caddies,” he said.
Ladenburg wrote a July 16 letter urging the governor to help assure that L&I’s decision “is fair and reasonable in light of the circumstances.”
Ladenburg wrote that the caddie program is integral to the quality of the Chambers Bay experience. He also wrote that a change could hurt other golf courses across the state that hire independent contractors.
“If the Department’s answer is affirmative, then the panoply of costs flowing from that finding would force KemperSports to terminate its caddie program,” he wrote.
Ladenburg and KemperSports backed off that statement when speaking with The News Tribune last week.
“We would not get rid of the caddie program,” Luthman said. “We would have to figure out the next step.”
L&I says it hasn’t made a final decision on the complaint and is investigating only Chambers Bay. Spokesman Steve Pierce said he’s not sure how a final ruling regarding the golf course might affect other caddie programs like it. “There could be unique circumstances at any number of golf courses that would have to be examined,” he said.
Nate Spitzer, a caddie from Tacoma, says the program works just fine for him. He said he makes good money working the course three to five times a week. The 32-year-old, who also works in the mortgage industry, said the person who complained to L&I mostly likely lacked the hustle and ambition to succeed.
“Anybody who’s worth their salt can be successful out there,” he said.
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653