1276783468clipper card.jpg3:30 PM: One of the benefits to the Clipper transit card, we’ve been frequently told, is it’s ease of use — you have one card that you “reload,” using your money or, in the cases of many, commuter checks, a service offered by many employers in which a pre-tax portion of your salary goes to paying for transit use. It’s super-duper easy to load those benefits onto your card, the Clipper site tells you. So why are users of commuter checks getting messages saying that Clipper wants to start charging them $2 a month to use their benefits?

“Clipper will begin billing a $2.00 service administration charge for all Clipper Card orders beginning with the March 2011 benefit month” reads emails sent to at least two Appeal readers by Commuter Check Direct. “This charge will automatically be assessed to your March benefit order and will be charged monthly for every successful load of your Clipper Card.”

“Am I getting charged $2 a month basically for using Clipper (and it’s the only option out there…)?” one reader asked. Another said “$2 a month? For what? why? We have to use Clipper now, I can’t use a normal fast pass? This seems like some bullsh*t to me.”

It does sound like some bullshit! And since the Clipper Card site says nothing about a monthly fee, the first thing I did was call John Goodwin, spokesperson for the MTC and the go-to guy for all Clipper questions.

“This fee is not being charged by Clipper or the MTC” he said, and seemed shocked and a little disappointed to hear that Clipper customers were being led into thinking it was. “This fee is coming from the benefit administrators, and we’re working to resolve it.”

Apparently Cubic (which owns Clipper), charges benefits administrators to participate in the program. When administrators made the move to start passing that charge on to folks like our readers, Cubic and the MTC began trying to “find resolution to some contract questions” because “we don’t want to see riders getting charged for this” Goodwin said.

So why did the commuter check provider’s message suggest that the fee was coming from Clipper, and not them? Goodwin doesn’t know, and Commuter Check Direct isn’t saying — when I called them to get comment, as soon as I said I was with a newspaper, they hung up on me. Good times!

“We’re working, I don’t want to say ‘frantically,’ but hard on this, to reverse this before March” says Goodwin. As always, we’ll keep you posted, until then, transit expert Akit has posted some alternative options for commuter check users in the comments.

Update 4:14 PM: Oh, this is fun: we’ve gotten our hands on an email sent by Commuter Check to the HR folks at companies that use their services earlier this week. It says, in part:

You are receiving this communication because one or more of your participants order products loaded directly onto a Clipper Card. As we notified you in December 2010, I’d like to remind you of the $2 administration charge that will be assessed to all Clipper loads beginning with the March 2011 benefit month. I’m writing to ask your assistance in ensuring that these charges are applied as per your directions.

If your company has elected to absorb these charges on behalf of the participants, please email me immediately indicating so. Please be sure to include your company name and confirmation that these charges should NOT be applied to participants. I ask that you respond ONLY if your company would like to absorb these charges. Otherwise, these charges will be assessed to the participants as part of their transit orders.

Communications to participants regarding this change was not triggered as previously indicated. This communication will be sent on Thursday, February 3rd. Please respond to this email if you do NOT wish to have your participants receive the communication; see below for a copy of the text.

The text referred is the same email folks are telling us they received this afternoon, that we quote above, right before the section where users call bullshit. Yeah, the one where they say this is a fee from Clipper.

What does the above memo prove, other than that if you got the email, your company is one that elected NOT to absorb the $2/person/month fee? Not much, I admit. But it’s interesting to see the background on these things, so I wanted to share it with y’all.

I also passed it on th MTC spokesperson John Goodwill — if he has any response to it, I’ll let you know.

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the author

Eve Batey is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal. She used to be the San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Managing Editor for Online, and started at the Chronicle as their blogging and interactive editor. Before that, she was a co-founding writer and the lead editor of SFist. She's been in the city since 1997, presently living in the Outer Sunset with her husband, cat, and dog. You can reach Eve at eve@sfappeal.com.

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  • Akit

    It’s been milling around about this alleged fee, but nobody would tell me what benefit company is going to do this. Now we know, and it’s the company I use to get my benefits.

    Assuming CCD follows through, the alternate options are:
    1: Vouchers. To claim for Clipper e-cash, passes, or e-tickets, you need to visit a Walgreens location or a transit agency ticketing office.
    2: Commuter Check green debit card: Can be used only at self-service Clipper machines, Clipper’s website, or by phone ordering.

  • Akit

    It’s been milling around about this alleged fee, but nobody would tell me what benefit company is going to do this. Now we know, and it’s the company I use to get my benefits.

    Assuming CCD follows through, the alternate options are:
    1: Vouchers. To claim for Clipper e-cash, passes, or e-tickets, you need to visit a Walgreens location or a transit agency ticketing office.
    2: Commuter Check green debit card: Can be used only at self-service Clipper machines, Clipper’s website, or by phone ordering.

  • Becca Klarin

    I wonder what would happen if we all decided to cancel our March commuter checks and went with an “M” paper fast pass (the last one!) instead? Thanks for doing the legwork, Eve.

  • Becca Klarin

    I wonder what would happen if we all decided to cancel our March commuter checks and went with an “M” paper fast pass (the last one!) instead? Thanks for doing the legwork, Eve.

  • Eve Batey

    It was my pleasure, Becca! Thanks to everyone who let us know about this message!

  • Eve Batey

    It was my pleasure, Becca! Thanks to everyone who let us know about this message!

  • BStriddy

    I just called CCD and asked about it as a customer. They first told me that it was Clipper instituting the charge. Then I asked specifically, “it’s Clipper, not CCD?” and was told that Clipper started applying the charge and they decided to pass it the charge on to customers.

    Does anybody know how CCD’s contracts with employers who provide transit subsidies work? Are they paid to provide the service, or do employers simply purchase their products for employees?

  • BStriddy

    I just called CCD and asked about it as a customer. They first told me that it was Clipper instituting the charge. Then I asked specifically, “it’s Clipper, not CCD?” and was told that Clipper started applying the charge and they decided to pass it the charge on to customers.

    Does anybody know how CCD’s contracts with employers who provide transit subsidies work? Are they paid to provide the service, or do employers simply purchase their products for employees?

  • Becca Klarin

    Employers pay an administrative fee to use the CCD service.

  • Becca Klarin

    Employers pay an administrative fee to use the CCD service.

  • JH

    I use FBMC (Fringe Benefits Management Company) which handles commuter benefits for city employees. They also charge a $2 “Transit Authority Fee” for Clipper cards.

    I wish I could work out how much “savings” I’m really getting by having them take it out pre-taxes if they’re going to charge me an additional $24 a year. Because otherwise I could just use clippercard.com to load my pass monthly.

  • JH

    I use FBMC (Fringe Benefits Management Company) which handles commuter benefits for city employees. They also charge a $2 “Transit Authority Fee” for Clipper cards.

    I wish I could work out how much “savings” I’m really getting by having them take it out pre-taxes if they’re going to charge me an additional $24 a year. Because otherwise I could just use clippercard.com to load my pass monthly.

  • Akit

    The odd irony of this is that if automatic loading comes with the fee, it would cost more for Commuter Check to mail and print vouchers, or issue new debit cards to people to get around the fee. Plus, it’s not eco friendly by making more paper or plastic.

  • Akit

    The odd irony of this is that if automatic loading comes with the fee, it would cost more for Commuter Check to mail and print vouchers, or issue new debit cards to people to get around the fee. Plus, it’s not eco friendly by making more paper or plastic.

  • frenchjr25

    Are they sure it is the benefits administrators? SFMTA charges fees for everything, even to walk into the office to talk to someone or buy a monthly pass. It would not surprise me if Clipper did the same thing.

  • frenchjr25

    Are they sure it is the benefits administrators? SFMTA charges fees for everything, even to walk into the office to talk to someone or buy a monthly pass. It would not surprise me if Clipper did the same thing.

  • Stuart

    Here is the story: As of March, all third party benefit administrators (Commuter Check as well as all others) who offer direct loading onto the Clipper Card will be assessed a $2.00 fee per successful load. You have options to avoid this. You can select a transit voucher and take it to one of 400 add value locations and add the value directly onto your card. Or you can select a reloadable debit card and sign up for autoload. This option allows you to take advantage of the high-value BART ticket discount–something that direct loading does not. This allows for $4 of additional fare for every $60 that is purchased.

  • Stuart

    Here is the story: As of March, all third party benefit administrators (Commuter Check as well as all others) who offer direct loading onto the Clipper Card will be assessed a $2.00 fee per successful load. You have options to avoid this. You can select a transit voucher and take it to one of 400 add value locations and add the value directly onto your card. Or you can select a reloadable debit card and sign up for autoload. This option allows you to take advantage of the high-value BART ticket discount–something that direct loading does not. This allows for $4 of additional fare for every $60 that is purchased.

  • Rice Mama

    Stuart, based on your comment, it sounds like you’re confirming that Clipper is charging all the third party benefit administrators, and that Commuter Check is passing that on to the employers that participate in their programs. The employers are then deciding whether to pay that $2 fee or to make their employees pay for it?

    Sounds like the blame lies on the employers for passing along an administrative cost to their employees….

  • Rice Mama

    Stuart, based on your comment, it sounds like you’re confirming that Clipper is charging all the third party benefit administrators, and that Commuter Check is passing that on to the employers that participate in their programs. The employers are then deciding whether to pay that $2 fee or to make their employees pay for it?

    Sounds like the blame lies on the employers for passing along an administrative cost to their employees….

  • steve

    Another completely unclear thing is the tax bit. We have a pre-tax withdrawal through commuter check direct. Does the $2 come out of the pre-tax? or does it need to be paid post? Who knows.

  • steve

    Another completely unclear thing is the tax bit. We have a pre-tax withdrawal through commuter check direct. Does the $2 come out of the pre-tax? or does it need to be paid post? Who knows.