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D.C. Metro appeals ruling that guarantees 3 raises in a row

John B. Catoe, Metro's general manager, said the award does not comply with a federal law that emphasizes the public welfare.
John B. Catoe, Metro's general manager, said the award does not comply with a federal law that emphasizes the public welfare. (Alfredo Duarte Pereira/el Tiempo Latino)

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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Metro will appeal an arbitration award that gives its front-line workers three consecutive 3 percent annual pay raises, part of a package that would cost the transit agency an additional $104.5 million over four years, officials said.

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In a statement issued late Thursday, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said Metro was appealing the wage increases because the arbitration panel failed to comply with a federal law that allows such increases "only if any costs to the agency do not adversely affect the public welfare."

Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents about 7,700 of Metro's approximately 10,000 employees, said she would have no comment until after a membership meeting scheduled for Thursday night. The contract bars the union from striking. But if Metro declines to comply with an arbitration award, that provision no longer holds. Union officials are considering all options.

Metro, like government agencies everywhere, is facing budget shortfalls: a projected $30 million this fiscal year and an even bigger one, about $144 million, next year.

The contract with Local 689, Metro's largest labor union, has been in arbitration since February. The ruling was signed late Wednesday in a split decision by a three-person panel, Metro said. Metro officials said that they would file an appeal in federal court but that they had not chosen which jurisdiction. Officials expect an initial decision to take at least six months.

Metro had proposed a 1 percent lump-sum payment for 2008 and another for 2009, then 1 percent raises for each of the next two years. Together with changes in health benefits, the agency's proposal would save Metro $129 million over four years, said Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The union sought a 6 percent salary increase for each of four years, or $353 million over the same period, she said.

The arbitration panel awarded a 2 percent lump-sum payment for 2008 -- about $8.6 million -- and 3 percent raises for each of the next three years, she said. It also made changes in health and retirement benefits that would cost employees more. New hires after January would no longer have retirement health benefits.

Metro is not challenging the lump-sum payment; the agency hopes to pay that before the end of the calendar year, and the amount has been budgeted in the current spending plan.

Average pay for bus and train operators is about $21 an hour. Many workers are able to increase their earnings significantly with overtime, sometimes doubling their income because, they say, Metro is short-staffed.

On the pay raises, Metro said it is not setting aside the decision but seeking judicial review. Officials said they think the panel did not take into account the budget crunches that have hit the local and state governments that provide a large chunk of Metro's budget. They said that Montgomery County firefighters agreed to give up previously negotiated cost-of-living increases and that Maryland state employees won't get cost-of-living or merit pay increases.

Metro said the arbitration award did not comply with the National Capital Area Interest Arbitration Standards Act, which prohibits an arbitrator from making an award that exceeds the agency's funding ability.


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