Metro announced a major workforce reduction Monday, saying it will eliminate 500 jobs that “are no longer deemed critical” to the beleaguered transit agency, which is struggling to deal with declining ridership and revenue woes.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who fired 20 non-union Metro employees last month in what he called a management “restructuring,” said in a memo Monday that a far more sweeping staff reduction is necessary “in order to operate in a businesslike manner and achieve cost savings” in the next fiscal year, which starts Friday.
While the firings on May 20 involved a relatively small number of employees in Metro’s 13,000-member workforce, the new round of job cuts will affect not only managers but also lower-level unionized workers, Wiedefeld said.
“I have directed the elimination of a total of 500 positions over the next several months,” the general manager said in his memo to all employees. He did not specify which jobs would be cut or how many of them are vacant.
Metro human-resources officials are “revising outdated policies and processes that guide the reduction of staff in positions that are no longer deemed critical to Metro’s business interests,” Wiedefeld said. “That review will conclude shortly, at which time redundant and other positions not deemed essential to Metro’s core business will be identified.”
He said, “Once identified, those positions that are currently occupied by incumbents will be eliminated through the appropriate process.”
A Metro spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on the workforce reductions beyond what Wiedefeld told employees in his memo.
Hired as general manager in late November, Wiedefeld has vowed to streamline Metro, particularly its workforce. A large majority of the 13,000 employees are members of three labor unions, mainly Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Two of the unions — including Local 689, which is by far the biggest — have contracts that expire Thursday, the last day of Metro’s fiscal year. “Negotiations are continuing with both unions,” the transit agency said. “Both labor agreements remain in effect after expiration, until changed through collective bargaining or binding interest arbitration.”
Metro’s contract with the third union expires at the end of October.
Of the $1.74 billion that the agency has budgeted for day-to-day operations in the fiscal year beginning Friday, about $1.3 billion is for projected labor costs, although the figure could change depending on the outcome of contract talks.
Some of the 500 positions to be eliminated are filled by “at will” employees, who can be let go at the general manager’s discretion. The 20 people fired in May were in that category.
But some of the 500 jobs are “represented positions,” meaning they are held by unionized workers. In those cases, Wiedefeld said, the agency’s labor-relations staff “will work with department heads to ensure that proper notifications” are given to the terminated employees in “adherence with collective bargaining agreements.”
Local 689 represents Metro train and bus operators, station managers and maintenance and clerical workers. In a statement Monday, union spokesman David Stephen neither criticized nor endorsed Wiedefeld’s decision.
“We understand the financial challenges of the system,” he said. “Our union shares [Wiedefeld’s] priorities of safety, reliability and financial responsibility. We also believe that financial responsibility can be achieved without excessive harm to Metro’s workforce and the millions of riders we transport annually.”
He said Local 689 “stands prepared to work with Metro to achieve financial responsibility and accountability, and we look forward to working with [Metro] leadership to meet that end with respect to the necessity of the work our members perform.”
After decades of maintenance neglect, Metro’s 118-mile subway system has been chronically beset by safety-related infrastructure problems, especially over the past year and a half, with electrical-related track fires becoming common. In October, Metro became the only big transit agency in the nation to be placed under federal safety oversight.
At Wiedefeld’s direction, Metro this month began a nearly year-long subway repair and rebuilding effort called SafeTrack, which is causing major disruptions for commuters. But the agency also is grappling with significant financial problems.
The money woes stem from Metro’s mismanagement of federal grant money and from a decline in operating revenue partly caused by a steady drop in subway ridership.
As Wiedefeld struggles to revitalize the agency, officials across the region, including members of Congress, have demanded that he do more to hold Metro managers accountable for the problems and fire those who fail to perform.
U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Monday that Wiedefeld’s action “has the effect of sending the message that incompetence, poor service, lack of quality control, indifference to reliability and safety will not be tolerated, and your job could be at risk, whether you are at-will or not. That’s the power of this decision today.”
Wiedefeld described the jobs reduction as a “business efficiency,” not a disciplinary measure aimed at poor performers in the transit agency. And Connolly said, “Look, most Metro workers, I think, are wonderful people who do great work.”
However, he said, “there’s a culture of mediocrity that has been allowed to permeate the workforce, and every customer experiences it. That has got to stop. And so I think this is a wake-up call for those employees that no job is safe.”
One of his Republican colleagues, Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), also applauded the move. “Metro currently has costs that far exceed comparable systems in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, while performance is well below average,” she said. “This is another step in the right direction in terms of fundamental change to Metro.”
The 20 firings in May came less than two weeks after Wiedefeld addressed an unprecedented gathering of Metro’s approximately 650 at-will employees at the Strathmore concert hall in Bethesda, Md.
Officials said the purpose of the gathering was for Wiedefeld to formally introduce himself to the hundreds of managers and explain his vision for the transit agency, including his goal of developing a robust institutional safety culture and his intention to hold employees accountable for Metro’s shortcomings.
Metro’s $3 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts Friday includes $1.74 billion for operating expenses, down from $1.78 billion this fiscal year. The reduction in day-to-day spending was forced largely by a projected decline in fare revenue.
Even though rail ridership is declining, causing a drop in revenue, the budget does not impose fare hikes or service cuts. It also does not call for an increase in subsidies from Washington-area jurisdictions, which will contribute $845 million to Metro, the same amount as this fiscal year.
The approach of trimming costs without significantly reducing payroll is not sustainable, Wiedefeld and Metro’s chief financial officer, Dennis Anosike, said.
“While I recognize that it will take several months to complete those processes,” Wiedefeld said of deciding which jobs to cut and then eliminating them, “it is important that we give employees as much notice as possible.”