As I noted below, Wisconsin GOP state senator Randy Hopper — a top target of the Dems’ recall drive — is running a new ad that slams public employees by decrying a “union bus driver in Madison making $160,000 a year.” The driver has been widely presented as the archetypal overpaid and overstuffed public employee — and a number of you seemed very interested in his case — so I thought I’d look into it a bit more.
Turns out that a little digging proves beyond doubt that pointing to this as evidence that public employees are overpaid is entirely bogus.
Mick Rusch, a spokesman for Metro Transit for the city of Madison, tells me: “It’s not fair to point to public employees as being overpaid based on this situation.”
Here are the details, as provided by Rusch. The driver, John Nelson, was able to earn $160,000 in 2009 not because of his annual salary, but because he worked a huge amount of overtime hours. He was able to do this because of previous rules, negotiated by Teamsters local 695, that allowed drivers with most seniority — and the highest salaries — to rack up large amounts of overtime. As a result, in 2009, Nelson worked 1,896 hours of straight time, but he was also able to add on a whopping 2,012 hours of overtime. This, not the exorbitant salary public employees supposedly enjoy, is what accounts for his huge haul that year.
Is Nelson overpaid? Starting bus drivers in Madison earn $17 per hour. Nelson has been working as a driver for 36 years, and his salary in 2009 was up to $26 per hour. There are other ways a bus driver can rack up more money, such as working at night or on vacation days, but all in all, his baseline salary has not gone up much. When working overtime he earns roughly $39 per hour. All this, after working this job for nearly four decades.
But wait, it gets better. It turns out that pointing to Nelson as an example of what’s wrong with public employee unions is thoroughly bogus in another way. According to Rusch, the city of Madison went to the bus drivers union last year and said the rules allowing the highest-paid bus drivers to snap up the most overtime had become a major problem. Turns out the union agreed, and renegotiated a deal to limit overtime in a way that has left Metro Transit happy. And guess what: That deal was negotiated through collective bargaining.
“They agreed with us that it was a problem,” Rusch said of the union. “They sat down with us and worked with us through collective bargaining to fix the problem.”
UPDATE: It was not fair of me to leave out the fact that Hopper’s ad explicitly states that the driver made much of his $160,000 from “overtime due to collective bargaining.” It was a sloppy oversight on my part to only represent part of the ad’s quote, and I deeply regret the error. This sort of inaccurate representation of context is inexcusable.
That said, it remains deeply misleading that the ad claimed the driver is “making $160,000 a year,” as this falsely implies that this has been an ongoing problem from year to year that has not been sorted out.
What’s more, the aim of this post was to take a close look at this driver’s situation, and the broader point is intact: Presenting this driver as representative of a broader problem — allegedly overpaid public employees and everything that’s wrong with their unions — is thoroughly bogus.