Bus drivers need a new way of working – like showing up
Written by Michael Lewis on January 16, 2018
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.