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Best of 2010: Metro's high wage scale factors into its bus-service equation

Top-scale wages here beat even New York's and San Francisco's. Comparisons like that should generate some buzz at a meeting tonight (June 3) of of Metro's stakeholder task force.


(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published June 3.)

Another meeting of Metro's stakeholder task force is on tap tonight, and there's bound to be a buzz about one of the big issues in Metro’s operating budget — high labor costs. Metro posted for the task force and the public last Friday some important facts on the drivers’ wage scale. The bottom line: It’s high.

So far the main focus of task force attention has been on the big shortfall in Metro’s revenue caused by recession-dampened sales tax receipts. They cover most of the system’s operating costs. The total projected shortfall for 2010 through 2013 is about $600 million compared to the sales tax projection in hand just two years ago. Lower revenues mean less service. Which routes should shoulder the cuts in bus and trolley service — as much as a sixth of the total hours of service — and who among Metro's patrons would suffer the biggest losses in service?

The level of service the system can actually provide in tight times depends on more than just revenue. It also depends on the costs of service — the operating expense for an hour of bus or trolley run time. Higher cost, less service. Lower cost, more service. Wages are 44% of the big-picture cost pie chart at Metro. Benefits are another 21%. So any growth in labor costs has a discernible impact on service.

Information Metro posted about the driver wage scale for 2009 is important, but it doesn’t document the entire wage and benefit picture. It talks only about drivers, not maintenance workers or managers. And it takes on only the wage scale, not the very significant question of benefits. Overtime pay, a big factor in overall employee earnings, also is missing.

Nor do the bare facts of the wage scale shed light on how either the King County Council or County Executive Dow Constantine intends to approach negotiations that are starting now with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. Local 587 bargains for Metro drivers and maintenance employees. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Oct. 31.

Still, the driver wage scale information is news, especially for the comparisons Metro provided to other transit systems. Experienced drivers at the top of the wage scale in 2009 made $28.47 an hour, topping all but two cities on a list of 29 around the country — and including six other systems in Washington state. Nationally, only Boston and San Jose were higher than Metro. New York and San Francisco were lower. Community Transit (Snohomish County), Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit (Thurston County), C-Trans (Clark County), Spokane Transit, and Whatcom Transit (Bellingham) were lower by 8 percent to 25 percent.

An even bigger eye-opener was this: The five-year growth rate for Metro's top wage scale (2004 to 2009) was 3.9 percent per year. On the comparison list, only transit operators in Las Vegas hit a bigger jackpot; but in that city, the top of scale for drivers is still below $20 per hour.

What was the wage progress of Metro’s transit drivers compared to inflation? For the years 2004 to 2008, the Consumer Price Index for the Seattle metro area rose by an average of 3.2 percent per year. The 2009 CPI increase was only .6 percent, and this year's growth rate is even lower so far. So the growth of Metro drivers’ top scale has outpaced CPI. In all likelihood the wage picture for Metro drivers has significantly topped the wage gains of people who ride the buses and pay the fares, and likely also the wage gains of all ordinary citizens who pay the biggest share of Metro’s costs through sales taxes.

Especially considering the very-low inflation environment, the upcoming negotiations with Local 587 indeed present a big challenge to all concerned: politicians, patrons, and drivers, too, for whom the negotiations present a dilemma. If the wage scale continues to shoot up, service hours are going to be sacrificed, and drivers don’t get paid a thing for bus and trolley runs left in the bus barn.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 31, 6:51 a.m. Inappropriate

No.

The bus drivers serve as replacements for the steel rails and automatic power and train signaling systems that guide the trains. The buses are small autonomous paqckets using diesel engines to substitute for the overhead wire and and electricity generating systems that power the trains. For a system of any larger size, the buses are more expensive and the expenses grow more quickly the more riders you add.

Buses that share roadways will aways be smaller than trains. If you build a ROW to support super-sized buses, the result will be as expensive as building ROW for trains. The buses put large amounts of expense in the operations column, that cannot be bonded, instead of the capital investment column, which can.

The bus drivers are highly skilled workers, each operating machinery valued at over a half million dollars, and usually loaded with tens of millions of dollars of potential liability claims, in a challenging fast-moving environment. Each driver is the public face of the agency. Each determines to some extent how often the buses will need to be repaired.

Doug MacDonald should know this and be able to communicate it to the public.

Posted Fri, Dec 31, 2:07 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with serial_catowner to some degree. The reason Metro's drivers should command a premium compared to the others Doug mentioned is the seedy areas that their drivers cover, the dense areas they drive in, the guff and situations they face due to the volume of riders they serve, and so on. On the other hand, I also agree with Doug that the complete compensation picture needs to be transparent. We often hear about COLAs. We rarely hear about "longevity" increases. In some agencies, these are automatically granted every year, at others it's at certain milestones. This is an apparent recognition of competence, and in the case of drivers, it is probably valid to the most degree. But, the percentage should be revealed. In the case of administrative staff, however, it should be based on merit instead, and only the highest-performing employees should reach the top of their pay grades. Neither of these is typically the case now, from what I've heard, but public agencies keep this hush-hush, along with that of managers' salaries and managers to staff ratios. In some agencies, a car allowance is granted. Why shouldn't those of us who pay the bills have this information readily available? Why shouldn't we know the details behind major expenditures, i.e. were these projects on schedule and on budget? Why shouldn't we have revenue information readily available? At last to Metro's credit, they have their meetings and staff reports online, but they could stand to get better information on projects, something along the lines of what WSDOT and Sound Transit do.

bricsa

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