The Transit Overtime Scandal

The Oregonian reports that drivers for TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, are taking so much overtime that many get little sleep. Paying for overtime costs taxpayers a lot of money and the lack of sleep creates hazardous situations.

This TriMet light-rail train crashed into the bumpers at the end of the line because, investigators found, the driver fell asleep at the controls. The TriMet employee who released this video to the public was suspended for doing so.

Thanks to overtime, four TriMet drivers earned more than $100,000 last year, but TriMet says that “only” four of them have been involved in accidents. How about that? Just 50 percent. This naturally raises the question of what share of drivers who don’t take so much overtime have been involved in accidents.

When I was young, I once visited the Rose City Transit bus barn in Southeast Portland and saw a sign on the wall saying, “Through these doors pass the safest drivers in the world because we put safety ahead of schedules.” It was just a slogan, and I have no idea how Rose City’s safety record compared with other transit companies. But today, transit agencies put overtime ahead of safety.

As the Oregonian documents, some drivers have worked as many as 22 hours in a 24-hour period, and often work 13 days in a row before a TriMet rule requires them to take a day off. “I’m built to handle it,” claimed one driver who worked 24.6 hours with only two short breaks. He earned nearly $65,000 in overtime in FY 2012, managing to hit “only” one parked car that year.

This isn’t just a problem at TriMet: the entire transit industry is beset by high overtime pay. More than 8,000 (that’s more than one out of nine) transit workers in New York City earn more than $100,000 per year. The highest-paid city employee in Madison, Wisconsin is a bus driver.

Transit agencies could improve safety and save taxpayers money by hiring more drivers. But when the Los Angeles transit agency proposed to do that, drivers went on strike. For agencies funded out of tax dollars, it is cheaper to give in to union demands than to operate efficiently.

Underscoring this is a federal law requiring transit agencies have the support of their unions in order to get federal capital grants. This gives the unions too much power and makes union jobs, rather than mobility, the primary goal of transit agencies.

TriMet’s general manager has promised an audit of the agency’s overtime hours. Unless he is willing to confront the unions in ways that neither he nor his predecessors have done, however, this isn’t likely to result in any changes in policies.

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2 thoughts on “The Transit Overtime Scandal

  1. bennett

    Most of the transit agencies I work with (small urban and rural) do not have the resources to pay lots of overtime. The directors of these systems are overtime Nazi’s and manage the hrs of their drivers and administrative staff very carefully. I’m not sure what the deal is re: the big urban systems. I feel that incidents like drivers falling asleep at the wheel can be used as leverage to change overtime policies and trump union griping.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    As the Oregonian documents, some drivers have worked as many as 22 hours in a 24-hour period, and often work 13 days in a row before a TriMet rule requires them to take a day off. “I’m built to handle it,” claimed one driver who worked 24.6 hours with only two short breaks. He earned nearly $65,000 in overtime in FY 2012, managing to hit “only” one parked car that year.

    Were these TriMet drivers operating commercial vehicles subject to the USDOT/FMCSA Hours-of-Service (HOS) Regulations (which most over-the-road commercial vehicle drivers (bus and truck) must comply with), they would presumably be ticketed for violating those rules and placed out-of-service for at least 8 hours. Were they working for a railroad, they would have to comply with USDOT/FRA HOS regulations. Either way, the practices described above would be illegal if TriMet had to comply with FMCSA or FRA HOS regulations.

    TriMet ought to tell its union(s) that it will require compliance with the HOS rules even though they do not apply to public transit properties.

    Note that some overtime, within reason, is not a bad thing in the transit business. But this is pretty clearly abusive, and poses a danger to TriMet patrons and other members of the traveling public. Not that TriMet really cares, as it seems that care and feeding and compensation of its workforce is a higher priority than providing safe transit service to the Portland region.

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