By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009; B05
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.
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.
In another development, a board discussion about the SmartBenefits commuting program was postponed.
Regarding Wednesday's power outage, Metro officials told a board committee Thursday that they could not rule out another electrical failure because interim backups rely on the same type of aging equipment.
When District board member Neil Albert asked whether the agency could provide assurances that there would not be another failure, Metro's chief information officer, Suzanne Peck, replied, "No, we cannot."
Officials said the power distribution unit that failed was 37 years old, not 27, as they said Wednesday. That is almost double the equipment's useful life of 20 years, they said.
A circuit breaker in the unit blew, causing the unit to overheat -- it reached 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- and fail. That power failure took down all critical Metro systems except the computer supervisor system that runs the subway, which gets power from a second power distribution unit.
Each unit is about the size of a large commercial refrigerator.
The unit that supplies power to rail-related computer systems is also 37 years old. Officials have checked it and determined that it is in good order, officials said.
The failed unit has been fixed temporarily; all affected systems, such as the subway public address system, two-way bus radio communications and e-alerts, were restored by Wednesday afternoon.
Until Metro is able to buy and install replacements -- a six-month process -- the agency is relying on a third unit, also 37 years old, to back up the first two.
Metro officials said it would cost about $2 million to buy three new power distribution units and about $12 million to replace related essential equipment.