Oregonian: TriMet abusing overtime?

Mentioned earlier in the open thread, but today the Oregonian‘s Joseph Rose is reporting that excessive overtime at TriMet is resulting in severe operator fatigue–a factor which led to an incident in 2011 where a Yellow Line train crashed into the buffers at the Expo Center station. (The driver apparently had dozed off).

Go read the article.

Rose reports that among other things:

  • Drivers have been known to work 18 hours or more during a 24 hour period; the average shift length is 9.2 hours.
  • One operator worked over 70 hours per week–for the entire year–during the just-ended fiscal year.
  • Numerous other incidents, including the crash between an empty bus and a Beaverton railroad signal, have been blamed on fatigue.
  • The agency has been threatened with ODOT sanctions with regard to MAX operator scheduling practices.
  • ODOT does not regulate bus driver hours, however; and the Federal Government (including the FTA) does not regulate this aspect of transit hardly at all.

There’s lots more damning stuff in the article. Go read it.

This is disturbing, obviously, given the agency’s public commitment to safety after the 2010 bus accident where a bus making a turn ran over several pedestrians (who had a green signal) in a crosswalk, killing two. The operator in that incident was fired, and many proclaimations about the importance of safety issued forth from Center Street.

How did we get here?

While TriMet and ATU757 are for the most part on bad terms these days, the subject of overtime is one where the agency and at least some of its operators are in agreement.

Drivers–some of them–like overtime. You’ve no doubt hear the stories of bus drivers making six-figure salaries; this is accomplished by working busloads of overtime, which pays time-and-a-half or possibly even double time. TriMet likes overtime–a huge parts of an operator’s compensation is the benefits package, and this is a fixed, per-employee expense (benefits cost the same for full-time employees, regardless of how much OT is worked). The apparent fact that letting a driver work 70 hours/week is apparently cheaper than hiring a second driver to put in half those hours ought to tell you something.

And of course, given the poor relations between the agency and the union, changes to work rules (including limitations on overtime, and/or use of cameras to monitor operators while driving) are unlikely.

Rose’s article focuses on the safety problems posed by these operational practices–but it almost seems to be a sign of a bigger problem: the agency, operationally, appears to be stretched too thin. We’ve all seen, and commented on, declining reliability at TriMet, a double-whammy for riders on top of service cuts. I’ve seen similar things numerous times in the private sector–a company, faced with financial problems, resorts to budget cuts and layoffs. But frequently, rather than scaling back all aspects of the operation by X% in response to an X% budget shortfall, a business will attempt to “limit the damage” by various means, including:

  • Use of overtime to mitigate productivity losses caused by the layoffs–the remaining staff are expected to “pick up the load”. This is often worse in the private sector, where the additional workload is uncompensated, particularly for those employees who draw a salary rather than an hourly wage (though in retail, there are many tricks to “encourage” hourly employees to put in some work off the clock).
  • Focusing attrition on support staff rather than the “front-line” workers who perform the public-facing or revenue-bearing functions.
  • Forgoing risk-mitigation expenses as a luxury that can no longer be afforded, and hoping (and praying) that the shinola doesn’t hit the fan.

In the case of TriMet, it appears that in an attempt to preserve service hours, greater cuts were made to functions such as dispatch, maintenance, fare inspection (though here TriMet is making up for lost time), customer service, and anyone else in operations who doesn’t drive a bus or train. (There is, of course, the question of capital projects and senior management. Some of these folks are paid by grants that cannot be diverted to operations, but almost certainly not all of them…)

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