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Article updated: 1/18/2013 11:36 AM

Metra gives 299 workers raises of up to 33 percent

Bumps of up to 33% come just before rate hikes

By Marni Pyke

Nearly a year after steep fare hikes took effect and a few weeks before additional ones are imposed, Metra leaders approved giving 299 employees raises from minimal amounts up to 33 percent, saying the move was long overdue.

The decision will cost the agency $1.4 million over three years, officials said at a meeting Thursday.

It comes at a time when Metra commuters are still smarting from a 29 to 30 percent spike in monthly passes and 10-ride passes on Feb. 1, 2012. And, starting this February, 10-ride passes jump by another 11 percent.

Members of Metra's board of directors said the raises for nonunion employees were justified, explaining that workers' salaries had been frozen since 2009 at the time of the recession. A 2 percent cost of living increase was instituted Jan. 1, however.

"There are individuals here who have gone for years without getting a raise and it's not right," Director Larry Huggins of Chicago said.

The base pay for Metra employees is generally lower than their colleagues in the private sector or at other transit agencies, CEO Alex Clifford said, adding this is a problem with 30 percent of the workforce readying to retire and railroad expertise in short supply.

"It's a huge challenge and we need to make sure as we go into the market and recruit that we have the ability to attract quality candidates," Clifford said.

The raises are capped at 9 percent a year; employees upgraded to more than 9 percent will receive increases over three years.

Metra paid Public Sector Personnel Consultants $100,000 to conduct a compensation study of job descriptions and salary levels as compared to similar businesses and public agencies. After surveying 450 employees about their jobs, the consultants recommended that 299 receive raises, while the remainders' salaries were deemed appropriate.

For example, a senior human resources manager making $61,950 will receive an 18 percent boost to $73,214; an electrical engineer making $74,581 will receive a 14.5 percent raise to $85,417; an associate general counsel making $81,000 will receive a 14 percent raise to $92,663; and an accounts payable manager receiving $51,418 will get a 33 percent raise to $68,407.

Clifford's team of senior managers, many of whom were hired or promoted recently, are not included in the increases.

Officials said updating job descriptions and wages closed the door on the era of former director Phil Pagano, where a climate of cronyism led to a dysfunctional pay scale. Pagano killed himself in 2010 in the midst of a financial misconduct probe.

"I think it's fair," Director Jim LaBelle of Zion said. "It's meant to correct a situation that led to an unfair situation."

"It brings rhyme and reason to salaries," Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said. "No one likes raising fares, but if we want to keep up the quality of our management, we have to take care of our people."

The decision to spend the $1.4 million on salary adjustments came during a meeting where officials touted a climate of transparency and approved a new committee tasked with reviewing salaries, new hires and promotions.

But the consultants' multi-page report was not provided to the media during the board discussion nor was it posted on Metra's website before the vote for the public to view. The motion approving the report was not voted on separately but was part of a complicated ordinance creating the new committee.

Asked about the apparent disconnect, Clifford said he completely disagreed, noting he had given frequent status updates to the board about the consultants' report. "I don't know how more transparent I can be," he said.

Directors refought a battle from December over the mission of the newly created "employment practices committee."

The plan to let committee members review new hires or promotions over a $100,000 annual salary drew fire on a number of levels with some directors saying it would encourage wannabe employees to curry favor.

Director Mike McCoy disagreed and led a successful effort to lower the scrutiny ceiling to $75,000. "If we err, we should err on the low side, on the conservative side," he said.

Officials also agreed to later revise the policy to require directors to inform Metra's auditor if any job applicant or their intermediaries had contacted them personally about hiring.

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