The latest “Metro Massacre” — with six employees sacked, six more suspensions or firings pending — is yet another sign that the troubled agency has a way to go before things get better. But it also shows that under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and the current Metro board, the agency is at least moving in the right direction.
Is the workforce?
On Thursday, Metro announced yet another mass firing — this one including supervisors and front-line employees — after an investigation into the July 29 derailment near the East Falls Church station revealed that track inspection reports had been falsified. Twenty-eight people — almost half of the entire track-inspection department — were disciplined. The falsified reports go back as far as three years. Anyone care to bet that they go back further than that and include many other stretches of track besides that one?
Even by the dysfunctional standards of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the news was stunning. The reaction from Jackie L. Jeter, who heads the agency’s largest union, was not.
Jeter, who is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said that, given past reports of supervisors’ condoning shoddy work practices, she could not accept management’s allegations against her members at face value. She also promised that the ATU would defend the disciplined employees — which, by all means, the union should do. All unions have an obligation to serve as an advocate for employees facing discipline.
But Jeter also blamed management for fostering an environment in which supervisors condone unethical behavior and sometimes coerce employees to go along with questionable or even unsafe practices. Jeter, along with other union members who attended Thursday’s board meeting, said employees often face retaliation from supervisors for speaking out.
Wiedefeld, in announcing the disciplinary measures, alluded to the same thing. “It is reprehensible to me that any supervisor or midlevel manager would tolerate or encourage this behavior or seek to retaliate against employees who objected,” Wiedefeld wrote.
No doubt, workers have been pressured by supervisors to do things the workers know are wrong. And that’s a terrible situation for anyone to be in. But those workers also have an obligation to do more than just go along. Metro and the union must do more to encourage employees to use the channels available to whistleblowers.
Wiedefeld told reporters Thursday that he thinks the agency has adequate safeguards in place to encourage and protect whistleblowers.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a number of people come to me,” Wiedefeld said. “That is something I made very clear. We put out a policy about it to refresh everyone’s understanding of that. There are numerous avenues for people to raise their hand at any time.”
These include the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) and Metro’s Office of the Inspector General. WMATA — under pressure from Congress — created the inspector general’s office in 2006. In addition to conducting investigations and audits, the inspector general is also authorized to investigate complaints initiated by whistleblowers and to protect them from retaliation.
“If anyone knows something is being falsified, they should raise their hand,” Wiedefeld told reporters.
But Jeter said many of the avenues mentioned by Wiedefeld have become dead ends.
“We know people who have done that and filed complaints and those complaints have gone nowhere,” Jeter said in an interview. “You’ve got the OIG’s office that never seems to think that any department has done anything incorrectly.”
Given the depth of Metro’s problems, it’s fair to ask what the inspector general has been up to for the past decade. In its latest semiannual report, the inspector general said the office received 191 complaints from Jan. 1 through June 30. The Sept. 8 report said that, of those, 15 resulted in investigations, including three involving whistleblowers. It’s not clear whether any of those involved track walkers or the rails near East Falls Church.
We’ve asked Metro’s media office — where reporters’ inquiries to the inspector general have been referred — whether any Metro employees came forward to complain that they were pressured into doctoring track inspection reports. We’ll update when we hear back. And, by the way, what does it say about the inspector general that its media inquiries are filtered through the agency’s press office?
The massive disciplinary action almost overshadowed another significant development Thursday, as the board agreed to a reduction in late-night service for at least two years, beginning July 1. The vote was unanimous, and it turned out that the District’s threat to veto the measure was just that. Instead of a one-year sunset provision, a last-minute compromise was struck for Metro to provide a progress report on its rebuilding program in May 2018.
Some grumbling could be heard afterward that the city had caved. It didn’t. It simply did the right, and painful, thing on behalf of the entire transit system.
Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a D.C. Council member, told reporters afterward that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had told him to vote his conscience, and his decision to go along with the two-year reduction in late-night service was not easy.
“I don’t like it. I’m the most impacted by it. I give up the most in supporting it,” Evans told reporters. But, he added, it was a decision taken in the best interest of Metro. “The board has been criticized a lot for parochialism, etc., etc. I think the action we took today shows that we recognize that and can get by it.”
Now it’s up to Maryland and Virginia to step up on funding and creating better safety oversight among themselves.
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