Metra employees get raises averaging 15% as agency eyes fare hikes

  • A commuter asks questions at a Metra public hearing on its 2015 budget.

      A commuter asks questions at a Metra public hearing on its 2015 budget. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/11/2014 5:31 AM

Metra leaders will vote Friday on proposed fare increases, including up to 19 percent for monthly passes in the same year hundreds of employees' salaries jumped by 15 percent on average.

The pay of more than 320 of Metra's nonunion staff members, ranging from low-level workers to supervisors, rose as much as 36 percent between 2013 and 2014, data obtained by the Daily Herald indicates.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The changes resulted from Metra's efforts to professionalize job descriptions, wages and raises after a haphazard approach in the past. They followed a recession-related salary freeze and should staunch a brain drain, Chief Executive Officer Don Orseno said.

"Our organization was broke in a lot of respects," said Orseno, who became CEO earlier this year. "We were way, way behind the times. We want a competitive structure so we can recruit and retain (employees). We have to invest in our employees that are unique to the railroad. Underinvesting in our workforce costs us money."

That's a tough sell for some riders.

"I think (the) increase is lavish by any standards, even if they haven't had raises in the last five to seven years," North Central Service commuter Nancy Pendrick said.

"Most people during that same period of time were (or) are happy to have any job at all. I haven't had a raise in that long either, and guess what? My boss won't say, 'Oh, well, since your train ticket is another $25 (a) month, here you go, I'll cover that for you.'"

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A total of 324 non-contract Metra staffers averaged 15 percent higher pay in 2014. That's about $10,851 a year more on average from 2013 to 2014. The changes cost about $3.5 million.

Of the 324 employees, 261 had raises of 7.5 percent or higher between 2013 and 2014. Of those, a total of 161 staff members earned 15 percent more and higher. A total of 42 staff members got raises of 25 percent and higher. Eleven people got raises of 30 percent or more, with three getting 36 percent.

Examples include an attorney who got a raise of 23 percent from $90,495 to $111,670, a police commander whose pay went up 25 percent from $75,337 to $94,172, and a communications and customer service supervisor whose salary spiked from $53,785 to $69,953, or 30 percent.

Also, 91 employees received promotions averaging 27 percent, or $20,593 a person. The cost of promotions came to $1.9 million.

Not only were qualified Metra union workers not taking promotions to management because of pay issues, but there was an exodus from Metra to better-paying jobs, including its IT department, Orseno said. The agency hired HR consultants in 2011 to study the problem and come up with a salary structure that better reflected job descriptions and peer agencies' pay, officials said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're doing everything we can to control costs. We're looking at every position before we fill those positions. We're trying to be good stewards of the tax dollars along with providing the best service we can," Orseno said.

North Central Service rider Steve Baldasti thinks "if it's clerical/support staff, then they should be entitled to an increase. If it's been three or four years at 3 percent or 4 percent per year that they did without, then it's fair," he said.

But "if it's upper management, then they knew what they were signing up for and should not be eligible at this time."

Metra board directors will decide this week on whether to raise fares in 2015 by an average of 10.8 percent. A monthly pass from Chicago to Lisle or Arlington Heights will bump up by 14 percent from $149.50 to $171.

The increase is part of an ambitious 10-year plan to buy new locomotives and train cars and an automatic braking system. It would include regular fare spikes for a decade to subsidize those improvements along with an annual 3 percent cost-of-living jump.

Cost-of-living raises also are expected in 2015.

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