Metra employees billing OT pay despite budget woes, fare hike

  • Snowstorms generate overtime for Metra workers, but millions of dollars in OT costs raise questions at a time when agency officials are considering significant fare hikes to help fill a $54 million budget gap.

    Snowstorms generate overtime for Metra workers, but millions of dollars in OT costs raise questions at a time when agency officials are considering significant fare hikes to help fill a $54 million budget gap. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 11/7/2011 5:12 AM

Sometimes numbers say a lot.

• $18 million

 

• $12.6 million

That's how much Metra paid employees in overtime during 2010 and through August 2011, respectively.

That's a sizable sum, especially given the agency's $54 million budget shortfall projected for 2012. And this week, Metra directors will vote on a significant fare hike proposal to balance the budget.

The agency's police department accrued $1.9 million in overtime during 2010 and $1.57 million through August 2011. Ninety-five cops received OT in 2010. One police officer logged $67,598 in overtime and a lieutenant made $65,447. That same police officer stood to make similar gains in 2011, with overtime payments of $46,673 through August.

"The majority of our overtime costs come from things we can't control," Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

She cited inclement weather like February's blizzard or accidents such as Thursday's derailment in Bartlett. There's also mandated training and certification that takes employees away from regular duties.

"The fact is -- we're a 365-day-a-year operation and things have to be fixed immediately. We're not like a freight railroad, we can't shut down, we have to have people out there fixing things," Pardonnet said.

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Although overtime is a thing of the past at many companies, Metra's engineering department -- which includes electricians, mechanics, janitors and signalmen -- accrued $8.8 million in overtime in 2010 and $5.2 million through August 2011. Some of the larger 2010 OT checks went to a system foreman who was paid $44,229 and a technician who received $46,352.

Pardonnet said many engineering costs are related to repairs or improvements of capital assets such as tracks or bridges. In those cases, the work has to be performed in warmer weather or on weekends, which creates unavoidable overtime.

"It's a lot more complicated than it seems," she said.

Metra officials note that about one-third of overtime paid in 2010 is "straight overtime," meaning employees get their base rate, not time and a half.

Officials also said Metra is hamstrung by union contracts that give senior staff first crack at overtime opportunities created by events like the Taste of Chicago. They noted that in the police department's case, about 23 percent of OT is reimbursed by U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The agency also will receive about $600,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to compensate for blizzard labor costs, Pardonnet added.

Metra consultants Blackman Kallick reported this February that overtime theft existed, some OT requests were processed without managers signing off, and, in one case, an employee reviewed his own overtime requests.

The consultants warned such practices could recur if administrators didn't clamp down.

New CEO Alex Clifford, who started in February, has instituted reforms such as requiring managers to send him monthly overtime reports and establishing a "stringent approval process," Pardonnet said.

The agency is working on a cost-benefit analysis of overtime, although there are cases where it just doesn't make sense to hire more people if their services are only required in summer or fall, at festivals and sports events, for example, officials said. Managers also are being required to justify overtime expenses.

"It comes down to decision-making and managing the personnel they have," Pardonnet said.

She added, "it's much better-managed now; there's still more that can be done."

Your voice

Reader Charles Rotblut's email provides a great example of why it's important to riders that Metra counts every penny.

The Vernon Hills commuter calculated he'll pay 46 percent more if Metra directors approve the rate hike. Rotblut's expenses include Metra dropping a subsidy for the Link-Up pass to the CTA and Pace bus systems.

"The $1,000 per year increase in costs I will incur is even larger for those living in further-out suburbs," Rotblut wrote.

"Given the current economic environment, this extraordinarily large increase is unacceptable. Many commuters are not receiving raises this year; for those who do, the rate hike will largely offset the after-tax increase they may have realized in their paychecks.

"Furthermore, Metra has yet to show to commuters and taxpayers that it can operate in a fiscally responsible manner. Rather than implementing a draconian rate hike, Metra executives need to prove they are consistently making the wisest financial decisions and demonstrate an understanding that riders and taxpayers are not unlimited sources of funding."

Got an opinion about the fare increase? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

It's got to get worse before it gets better on Route 20 -- or so I hear. IDOT crews are reconstructing the Route 20 interchange with McLean Boulevard in Elgin. As a result, expect occasional lane closures during the day on Route 20, Shepard Drive, Fleetwood Drive and Weld Road, plus overnight closures on Route 20 and McLean Boulevard. Work will last through the winter and conclude in fall 2012.

Coming soon

If you've got time and an opinion Friday morning, Metra's board of directors is scheduled to vote on its budget and proposed fare increases. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. at 547 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, and there is a public comment period.

One more thing

Speaking of expenses, the Regional Transportation Authority recently approved a three-month, $45,000 no-bid contract with the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Usually, no-bid contracts are frowned upon except when there's a pressing need for a service no one else can supply. In this case, RTA administrators said going against the grain was justified because "Hill and Knowlton is uniquely qualified to provide public affairs consulting expeditiously and at a fee that makes a competitive procurement for this professional service disadvantageous." The contract could come up again after three months, so stay tuned.

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