- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Second of three parts

The mechanics tasked with maintaining the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s chronically broken escalators start at $81,000 a year. Bus driver pay goes as high as $114,000 for anyone with a driver’s license and a GED.

Yet despite an economy that has left people from all walks of life looking for work, Metro says it can’t find qualified job applicants.

The transit system’s failure to meet its personnel needs was largely responsible for the $88 million in overtime it paid in 2010. The overtime paid to some station managers exceeded their base salaries, and maintenance workers made as much as $100,000 in overtime alone, according to an analysis of the most recent records officials would provide.

A personnel system that appears broken will be put to the test like never before as the agency prepares to add 1,000 new positions, an expansion coinciding with the opening of the Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport, that will push its total employee ranks past 12,000.

With nearly 1 in 10 existing positions unfilled and an additional 5 percent turnover each year, the chance of successfully filling all the new positions is virtually nil, said Tom Downs, a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board.

“There are 1,700 people before you get to that 1,000,” he said of the new positions, which officials say are mostly for track maintenance, the new Silver Line and transit police.

Construction on the Silver Line began in 2008 and the 11.6-mile first phase is scheduled to open in 2013. The 11.5-mile second phase will be opened in 2016.

Current Metro policies, The Washington Times reported Tuesday, have led to a workforce whose largest job category is 97 percent black and has only 70 white women out of 10,000 non-executive workers, and where disciplinary and pay records document that some workers get away with chronic malfeasance while others are disciplined frivolously or harassed.

Metro officials have said that 1,000 applicants are whittled to a pool of 30 candidates and even fewer hires. Yet the cream of the crop, court and Metro documents and interviews showed, is rife with convicts, drug addicts and the marginally literate, while others with college degrees or strong work ethics have documented an inability to succeed within Metro.

Officials declined to say at what stage, or for what reasons, the 970 applicants were rejected.

“What happens to the 970? We’re looking for people who are qualified for the position. You get some people who are not qualified,” agency spokesman Dan Stessel said. “You should be happy we have hiring standards.”

Only 1 in 4 applicants passes Metro’s three-part test with reading, behavior and customer-service sections. But a statistical analysis of test results shows curious results.

In one class, nearly everyone who could read, according to the literacy test, was marked down as failing a “behavior assessment.” Everyone deemed tops on behavior, meanwhile, failed the other segments.

Metro officials said the tests were multiple choice and that the behavior test is designed to fail about half of the applicants.

“I don’t think the test is rocket science,” said Jackie L. Jeter, president of the union that represents most Metro workers.

She said filling the new jobs wouldn’t be a problem. “All you have to do is look at the unemployment line. … How long it’s going to take to get to 1,000, I don’t know, but the ones they are advertising are pretty good-paying jobs.”

To explain the 1.4 percent of operators who are Hispanic and 1.5 percent who are white, Mrs. Jeter speculated that such people must not be applying. (The union is not responsible for hiring.)

Mr. Downs said, for the same reasons Mrs. Jeter noted, that is false.

“Of course they are. These are good-paying jobs with retirement and health care,” Mr. Downs said.

Metro declined to provide demographic information on applicants.

Pay and a pension

The average Metro worker had a $60,000 salary, which went up to $69,000 including overtime, about the same as D.C. schoolteachers.

The 144 people who try to keep Metro’s escalators in service make $80,000 to $100,000, after paid training at a $60,000 to $80,000 per year rate. The 488 station managers inside glass kiosks at rail stations — occasionally fielding questions, often with a bare minimum of information, riders say — have base salaries in the high $50,000s, but in reality, most take home closer to $70,000. Including overtime, 20 station managers made in the six figures.

Nearly all of Metro’s 3,000 bus and train operators were paid overtime, with more than 1 in 3 making more than $10,000 in overtime and more than 1 in 10 supplementing his or her salary by more than $25,000, according to a Times analysis of payroll records obtained through open-records requests.

The fiscal 2010 budget includes some emergency work done after the June 2009 Red Line crash. Metro officials declined to provide The Times with detailed records since 2010, but overtime rose in 2011 before falling sharply in 2012 in emergency-related categories. Overtime for station managers and bus and train operators, however, has remained constant for years, and the agency’s 2013 budget allots for an increase in overtime across all categories.

Some overtime for bus drivers comes from shuttles that replace trains when portions of tracks are shut down for repairs. Other overtime is preferred over hiring more workers because of the cost of benefits for new hires, Mr. Stessel said.

Overtime allows workers to dramatically increase the pension they collect upon retirement. The pension is based on an average of the worker’s highest-earning years.

Mrs. Jeter said low-ranking workers’ salaries weren’t too high given what managers earn.

“I had a supervisor who retired the other day, his average was $196,000,” she said. Workers who are promoted from unionized positions to supervisory roles can stay in the union for retirement purposes.

At Metro headquarters downtown, General Manager Richard Sarles, the former head of New Jersey Transit, is paid $350,000 — $50,000 more than his predecessor — and employees say he has made the system more top-heavy.

“He brought in Lynn Bowersox, his spokesman in New Jersey, to be No. 2 in communications, creating a layer that never existed and paying her in the high $160s plus $30,000 to relocate,” a former top Metro executive said. “Then they brought in Dan Stessel from the same place … and paid him to relocate. Under their own policies, they’re only supposed to pay relocation for hard-to-locate skill sets like engineers. PR people are a dime a dozen in this town.”

The agency’s marketing and public relations staffs number about 72 while its safety department staff numbers 61, records show. And those hires have not led to higher-quality work, the official said.

“They run the communications office like a political campaign now,” she said. “They give statements when it’s convenient. They don’t answer questions.”

Another person until recently at the highest level of Metro noted that rapid turnover among executives has exacerbated a divide between out-of-touch executives and a long-standing culture of apathy among workers outside headquarters.

“The people down at that level say Mr. Whoever-you-are, you want us to change, but you’re going to be gone in three or five years, and we’ll still be there. I could walk into that building and not know 20 percent of the people,” he said.

Mr. Stessel said long-standing issues with hiring bus drivers have improved. “We’ve increased [human resources] staff to handle bus operator staffing” and held recruiting events for military veterans, he wrote in an email.

Projects scheduled for this year still include large amounts of overtime.

When a rail car repair facility is revamped, for example, most of the 5,200 hours paid to Metro workers will be at overtime rates, largely so they can escort contractors. Multiple Metro workers who have overseen such projects said that contractors are given keys to facilities in violation of rules, and that Metro workers provide virtually no supervision or services on such assignments.

Even office workers took home large amounts of overtime. The overtime paid to computer specialists was 37 percent of their combined base salaries, while the overtime paid to information agents was one-third of their base — a fact that immediately stood out in the Times review of 2010 records.

But it wasn’t until more than a year later that overtime fraud was caught.

Two weeks ago, a jury convicted former information agent supervisor Alfred Atanga of theft for paying for hours that were never worked to Lakisha Gardin, Empriss Jacobs and Keesha Richardson. Gardin received probation. Ms. Richardson, who records show had previous drug and assault arrests and was placed on paid leave pending an investigation, had theft charges dropped in court. Jacobs will be sentenced Thursday in Prince George’s County.

Take up the slack

Metro’s inexplicable backlog in processing applicants has led jurisdictions to take up the slack, prescreening them, running criminal background checks and forwarding the names in an attempt to help Metro do what it has not been able to do for itself for years, Mr. Downs, the Metro Board member said.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray had one idea for breaking the decided homogeneity in Metro’s workforce: Hire more D.C. residents. Indeed, the good-old-boys network that comprises Metro’s 10,000 field workers is dominated by men from Prince George’s County, with only 14 percent of Metro workers living in the city. Including executives, 15 percent live in Virginia.

“There’s a story behind that,” Mr. Downs said. “At one point, 70 percent lived in the District. A bus driver can make $70,000 and that’s middle class, and like a lot of middle-class people they want to move to the suburbs. The same people are still working for Metro, they just moved to Prince George’s.”

• Luke Rosiak can be reached at lrosiak@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide