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Front Page » Opinion » Bus drivers need a new way of working – like showing up

Bus drivers need a new way of working – like showing up

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Written by on January 16, 2018

Bus drivers need a new way of working – like showing up

As Miami-Dade tries to fund more mass transit, what we already have is bleeding riders because of poor service and faltering equipment.

County officials blame fund shortages, but they’re spending tens of millions a year that could make a vital difference in transit operations starting today. Massive waste is a sure recipe for long-term failure – and not just in transit.

I learned about big-time waste decades ago as a New York Post editor on a visit to the paper’s rubber room, where 60 printers were paid union wages to play rubbers of bridge all day because they were extras who had no duties except bridge, chess and reading.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But Miami-Dade Transit pays 434 extra union bus drivers every day – 31% of all bus drivers – to sit in three bus terminals waiting in case some of the 1,056 drivers who actually have routes for the day call in sick.

The difference from the rubber room is that so many county bus drivers call in sick that some days the 434 extras aren’t enough to meet the need – so the county calls in drivers from home and pays them 100% overtime to fill in. From last May 1 to June 17, for example, an average of 53 bus workers were called in from home and paid overtime every day because 434 extras weren’t enough.

The newspaper industry also had dead horse, a union requirement that ads created by agencies had to be re-created exactly at the newspaper, corrected to perfection and then thrown away like a dead horse because the agency work was being used. We did that when I was at Gannett but never had time to re-create all the ads, so at the end of the year the publisher simply paid the printers extra not to re-create the year’s unneeded ads.

Again, it sounds crazy. But many of the county’s bus drivers have overtime hours built into their routes. When they’re out sick or on vacation the overtime hours not only aren’t counted as sick or vacation time, but the drivers still get paid overtime or even higher holiday rates for not driving those overtime hours.

In my teens I commuted to Chicago on the nation’s last coal-powered railway, where a fireman controlled the coal flow. Other railroads had long since gone to diesel fuel – but by union rules they still had to pay a fireman to sit in the cab of every engine and not throw in the coal that didn’t exist.

Paying people not to work sounds crazy, but the county pays 16 transit workers every day to work for the Transportation Workers Union. Four of those 16 are paid to counsel union workers – who are off the job more than 22.2% of the time, including being sick 14.2% of the time – on the virtues of showing up for work.

By department figures, just the time transit workers call in sick each year costs the county $20 million of its $540 million transit budget to replace them on the job to keep transit rolling, money that could have been spent improving service and equipment or adding routes.

In fact, the county had to cut Metrorail hours last year to save about $5 million to make budget, costs that could have been financed by just a quarter of the transit sick pay.

While all the instances I’ve cited sound crazy, they have two common denominators.

One is that in every case the craziness was part of rules that unions demanded but that employers caved in and agreed to. There would have been no rubber room or dead horse or needless firemen if the newspaper and rail industries, which were both raking in big money, hadn’t agreed. Call it collusion or what you like.

The Transportation Workers Union also isn’t acting alone – it has a contract that allows all that abusive waste of taxpayers’ money, and county officials signed off on that contract. Nobody is blameless.

When I asked transit chief Alice Bravo, who wasn’t with the county when the last contract was signed, what the union says when it’s asked about the abuses, she says the reply is “That’s the policy that’s in place.” True, but still wrong. The policy in place must be replaced.

Mayor Carlos Giménez told me, “That’s the way it is, and we don’t like it any more than you do.”

The other common denominator is that the fat days of newspapers and railways and urban transit are over, and contracts that allowed these abuses were part of the problem.

But the county now is in position to fix things. It has been without a current transit workers contract for about three years and is at impasse with the union. In February or March the issue is likely to come before county commissioners.

If commissioners vote in the administration’s favor, Ms. Bravo said, the county will research how transit departments elsewhere handle similar issues, negotiate with the union and add changes to the next contract.

Those changes could include giving supervisors a sporting chance to discipline workers who continually call in sick.

Every transit worker, Ms. Bravo said, can call in sick eight times a year before a supervisor can say a word about absenteeism. And that’s not eight sick days – it’s eight illnesses. Calling in sick for a month, she said, counts as just one of those eight. It takes 14 illnesses in a year to rise high enough to lose a job, and that has happened only once in Ms. Bravo’s tenure, because at the end of the year the slate gets wiped clean and transit workers can start accumulating up to 14 more illnesses with impunity.

It’s not just drivers who are frequent absentees in the 3,366-person department. Of the 11 persons assigned to clean Metrorail cars each night, Ms. Bravo said, often eight call in sick. Two weeks ago, she said, all 11 were sick the same night. Any wonder that some folks say Metrorail cars are filthy?

Ms. Bravo practically pleads for a normal discipline process for excess absenteeism. Her hope is that in a climate where everyone is pushing for more and better transit as ridership falls and revenues drop, “taxpayers who hear about this would get incensed.”

Regardless of what happens in the county commission, she promises what she calls a “new lineup” on March 11 with new shifts for workers to reduce overtime across the board.

But that’s a Band-aid. As long as the county is saddled with a contract that makes 22.2% average daily transit absenteeism normal, any routes added in a vaunted new Smart plan to cover the whole county will never be sustainable. The county will spend its time not adding service but cutting running time in order to pay sick time and overtime and double-pay vacation days.

We join the mayor and transit director in hopes that commissioners will put transit service for 2.7 million residents ahead of the votes of 3,366 transportation union members when looking at the craziness of the transit contract.

Whoever sat on the county’s side of the table in agreeing to massive giveaways is probably long gone. Like transit workers who get to start their illness record over again each year, it’s time for a clean slate.

14 Responses to Bus drivers need a new way of working – like showing up

  1. DC Copeland

    January 17, 2018 at 8:12 am

    That union negotiator repping the county probably was in bed with the union. Even so, the county commissions should never have voted for it. That said, why not consider swapping union ran mass transit with a privately run company? We keep the hardware,
    the new company manages the system and people for profit. For that company to be successful it, of course, has to make customer service its top priority.
    Otherwise it will lose money, service will slack-off and the county will step in to find another company to replace it. This seems easier than continuing to work with an entrenched union that puts its workers first.

  2. Anita

    January 17, 2018 at 10:37 am

    Miami today news, NO where in this article did I read that you interview any personnel that works at transit.This article is false, misleading at best and your writer Micheal Lewis left out many facts. Transit is much needed I’d Dade county and painting Bus Operators in a bad light is not helping in solving the over all problem of congested traffic and over spending in Dade county Government

  3. Aubrey Davis

    January 17, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    I agree Anita, most of these writers don’t have a clue about what’s going on at ground zero with the bus operators. It’s funny he never mentioned how “UNION EMPLOYEES “agreed to concessions in 2011 so Carlos Gimenez could balance the county budget without raising their taxes during the recession, which pretty much put him in position to be re-elected. Nor does this misinformed writer mention how the county commissioners wasted hundreds of millions of dollars from the half a cents tax sales that was supposed to go towards improving public transit buses and routes.Then there’s the illnesses bus operators suffer from sitting for long periods of time without taking any breaks. Blood clots, spine damages, torn knee ligaments, tuberculosis and not to mention being attacked by members of the riding public, but I guess Ms. Bravo or The Mayor didn’t put that kind of information available for review huh ? Smh

  4. Angel Devonne

    January 17, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Hello, didn’t seem to mention not enough running time on the routes and not changing the schedule to adequately fit the way Miami-Dade County has expanded. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to figure this out this out come on guys it’s 2018.

  5. E. Sawyer

    January 17, 2018 at 4:47 pm

    Aubrey don’t forget their d.o.t. medical examiner not following d.o.t.’s exam protocol, but instead following what the county is telling them to do. For example sleep apnea. How many operators are pulled off the bus for that? What I was told by the medical director of Jackson was that the d.o.t. protocols are for the outside not the inside,whatever that means. Food for thought.

  6. P G

    January 18, 2018 at 12:14 am

    Michael Lewis you should dig a little deeper and report the truth from both sides……

  7. Private Sector Resident

    January 19, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    I wish I could take 20% of my time off work and still get paid for all of my work. Instead, I work full time and have a full-time side-job in trying to get my local government to follow it’s own laws and state laws, even slightly.

    This is an offensive situation and reality needs to be injected into the equation. Thirty years ago, this kind of solution could make sense, but now with the advent of the COMPUTER and the DATABASE and SPREADSHEET and CELLPHONE scheduling problems could be alleviated without tolerating excessive absenteeism.

  8. Think Twice

    January 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    Miami Dade Cops and Fireman have something called “comp time”, which allows them to save/ bank hours for future usage. Hence, they can take off a lot from work to spend more time with their families without it affecting their jobs; or any disciplinary action.

    Now, Miami Dade Transit is mostly a Majority of Females (Mothers), but they do NOT get ” comp time”. Hence, if a Mother needs to take a day “off” to tend to there families and kids needs, they get disciplined!

    Maybe if Miami Transit was treated equally by the Mayor, as other Departments, and he gave Transit Employees the “comp time” option, it would help assist a lot of the working mothers at transit with taking time off to attend to their families needs.

    Have a heart for gods sake, these are working mothers just trying to make a living and juggle their family problems at home. Mayor Gimenez would really not understand what a mother has to go through.

    Hats off to all mothers, it ain’t easy being a mother.

    Think Twice

  9. Miamicityman

    January 20, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    Ouch. Telling it like it is.

  10. Michael

    January 22, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Comments above are well taken but are also at same time a diversion. They do not negate or even challenge the article.

    • Miami Lover

      January 23, 2018 at 1:19 am

      Every single employee that works for Miami Dade county earns Annual Vacation time and Annual Sick time, period. But Transit employees are the ONLY employees in Miami Dade county who get penalized when we use our earned Annual Vacation/ Sick time thru a program they have established called PACE. So what?, if we earned our time (like every other department/ employees) to take off from work, why can’t we use it without being disciplined, it makes no sense?

      Now, it seems like your leaders “Mayor/ Transit Director” are trying to use the employees as a scape goat, by blaming all of our horrible Transit System issues on the workers “its the employees fault”. Don’t be so easily manipulated.

      Furthermore, As a citizen first, born and raised in Miami Dade, I would love see our Transit infrastructure finally expanded, as far back as I can recall, The FL. Turnpike and Palmetto Expressway have been “Under Construction” for over 12+ years already with no end in sight, and it has not done anything for our local traffic problems at all. Its time to find another alternative to Miami’s traffic problems and stop wasting our tax payers dollars are more roads.

      Its all politics!!!

      The Mayor & Director are just trying to deflect our horrible Miami Transit issues by whining about Transit employee absenteeism, but this happens in every Miami Dade county dept. (Police, Fire, Solid Waste, Etc, Etc)

      People need to stop pointing fingers at the employees and start looking at your leaders for better solutions. Its time for the Metro Rail infastructure to be Expanded!!!

  11. LA Chat

    January 23, 2018 at 1:46 am

    Mayor Giminez and Mrs Bravo should be 100% focused on fixing our daily local Traffic nightmares, not on this!

    Go back and ask them what happened to our 1/2 penny tax promises!

    Please, Recall the 1/2 penny tax!

  12. Aubrey Davis

    January 23, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    Challenge the article ? LOL,are [you] kidding me ? We’re just giving you a glimps of what hasn’t been reported. The funny thing about MOST of you who agrees with the same guy who’s been destroying public transit for some time now is, none you wouldn’t never even consider taking a job driving a public bus. But you will come on here and condem someone or something you know nothing about. Ask The Mayor,yourself and the writer of this blog have any of you ever driven a bus, and if your answer is no, then your not even qualified to speak on anything dealing with transit employees rights and benefits. Stop speaking on the effects of something without investigating it’s causes…Teeth and Gums

  13. D. Smith

    January 24, 2018 at 9:51 pm

    No transit operator can call in sick for a whole month. That’s just false and exaggerated. The extra operators are not just for when people are sick but also for people on vacation, or for on job injuries or for people the county takes off the bus for sleep apnea (sometimes 1 months plus), or other job related health issues etc. And when all the work is covered the extra operators get sent home early. This article is so one sided and exaggerated. Transit service suffers because the people who are in charge of managing are failing. Its like having a five star resturant and expecting the chef and crew to provide five star service but the manager/ owner refuses to provide them with reliable equipment and necessities and then points the finger at the employees when service is bad.

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