Daniel Borenstein: Overtime soars for some of BART's employees
IN THE TOWER at the top of six flights of stairs, Oscar Rodriguez directs traffic in BART's Concord yard. The evening commute is over and it's time to break apart the trains, remove cars needing repairs or routine maintenance, and reconfigure the trains for the next morning's rush hour.
Rodriguez sits at a bank of computer screens with a view out the windows looking at the railroad spurs that spread for about a half mile, instructing train operators below where to take their vehicles. Nothing moves on the tracks without his permission. Rodriguez is trying to solve a giant puzzle, figuring out where to store the broken-down cars while stringing together enough operable ones.
"It's not an easy job," Rodriguez says. "There's a lot happening."
I observed Rodriguez for about an hour last week as he directed traffic and taught a trainee learning the ropes. Indeed, Rodriguez was busy. But there were breaks in the action. It would be incorrect to liken this to, say, an air traffic controller.
I wanted to understand how difficult his job was because, for reasons that still perplex me, BART has a hard time finding qualified people to become "operations foreworkers" and eventually "senior operations foreworkers" like Rodriguez.
As a result, the existing workforce of 76 trainees, foreworkers and senior foreworkers is raking in the overtime. The job pays roughly $65,000-$84,000 a year. But once overrtime, shift differentials and other compensation are added in, most foreworkers add 50 percent to their base salary and a dozen last year more than doubled their pay.
With employee unions and BART negotiators locked in tense bargaining, this is the sort of expense that both sides need to reduce so the district can crawl out of its financial hole. The problem is not limited to just a select few. For all foreworkers last year, overtime, shift differentials and other pay added 62 percent to base pay.
These folks top BART's overtime list. Of the 13 highest overtime earners last year, 12 were senior operations foreworkers.
Rodriguez, for example, earned $176,002 in salary, overtime and other pay last year. Five of his colleagues earned even more, with Carl Oliver topping the foreworker list at $218,621. That included $116,416 in overtime pay and $18,593 in other pay, which was largely for shift differentials.
Managers and labor leaders are quick to point out that it's actually cheaper to pay someone time-and-a-half for overtime than to hire more people and then pay them health, pension and other benefits that cost about 60 percent of base salary.
But, first, that argument begs the question of why BART benefits have become so expensive that they are easily twice as costly as what's generally available in the private sector. It suggests that BART, in the current labor negotiations, must find a way to trim the price of benefits.
Second, that argument ignores that foreworkers are putting in so much overtime that they frequently are on double-time for working a seventh day in a week. At that point, it's clearly cheaper to hire more workers.
Moreover, there's a question of worker safety and institutionalization of the overtime. "It's not a good
situation when people are working this many hours," says Paul Oversier, BART's assistant general manager for operations. "What happens is they get tired. And secondly, they get used to an artificially inflated level of earnings. It's not a healthy situation."
Indeed, Leo Ruiz — who earned $203,588 total pay, boosted by his No. 2 ranking on the overtime list at $103,130 — says he volunteers to work almost all his scheduled days off because he's saving for his kids to go to college. Nearly half of his overtime earnings were from double-time pay.
While one can appreciate that he wants his children to get a good education, BART taxpayers and riders should not be subsidizing it. The district needs to eliminate the double-time, reduce benefit costs for all employees and negotiate work rule changes so it doesn't have to fill all the foreworker shifts when workers call in sick.
While Rodriguez' tasks at the Concord tower are critical to BART operations, other foreworkers are less essential, says Oversier. For example, some are responsible for supervising station agents. Oversier would like to see a change in work rules that allows the district to leave those posts vacant when someone is absent.
But the district won't be able to solve the biggest part of the overtime problem if it doesn't hire enough foreworkers. The staffing shortage is chronic in part because prospective foreworkers often drop out of the training process. Clearly, the job requires people who can focus on detail. It's not for everyone. But it's not rocket science, either. Finding qualified applicants shouldn't be so difficult.
Oversier says foreworker staffing has been a problem since he first arrived at BART in 1990. It's time to fix it.