Metro's Overtime Bonanza

Friday, June 8, 2007

SOMETHING IS wrong at Metro when almost 9 percent of its $1 billion operating budget goes to pay overtime to employees. Something is wrong when Metro, whose workforce is comparable to the Los Angeles transit system's, has at least 10 times as many workers clearing $110,000 a year, thanks largely to profligate overtime policies and practices. And something is wrong when some Metro employees receive overtime pay even while on vacation based on the fact that their usual workweek includes extra hours on the job.

The transit agency and its employees have come to regard overtime as an entitlement and a built-in way of doing business. Part of that, such as the vacation-overtime bonanza, springs from contractual concessions by Metro that, once made, are all but impossible to rescind. A greater part stems from decisions by the agency's management, which has long faced pressure from the Metro board to cut costs and personnel while expanding service. The upshot is an endemic shortage of bus drivers, train operators and other critical workers. That, in turn, has led to out-of-control overtime that cost the system $91 million last year and is expected to be in that range again for the fiscal year ending this month -- an increase of 56 percent over the past five years or so.

Fortunately, the agency's new boss seems appropriately scandalized by the status quo. When The Post's Lena H. Sun brought the vacation overtime situation to the attention of Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., he was so stunned that at first he didn't believe it. Now Mr. Catoe, who took over in January, is on a campaign to slash overtime costs; he promises significant reductions by next year.

He starts with a healthy sense of urgency about hiring dozens of bus drivers and scores of train operators, while simultaneously offering incentives to discourage retirement by the alarming numbers of Metro employees who are eligible. Mr. Catoe has already shifted Metro policy by hiring bus drivers who from the outset are full-time, not part-time employees; that should ease recruitment. He'd also be well advised to review the pay policies for bus and train drivers, with an eye to shortening the long wait they face to reach top scale, and to abolish the system whereby some drivers work a regular daily eight-hour shift, followed by a so-called standby shift of another three hours on overtime.

Operating buses and trains is an extraordinarily demanding job, requiring stamina, concentration and sustained attention to safety; drivers are in a position of trust and should be fairly compensated, and some overtime is justified. But something is out of whack when one bus driver was able to command $143,000 last year, an income approaching that of the chief operating officer of Metro's bus division. Mr. Catoe has his work cut out for him.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company