But during the on-going transit strike, the issue of driver scheduling is being zeroed in on by city administrators as the cause of budget problems. It's true that overtime for drivers is a cause of Metro Transit's budget woes, but that's being overstated and blame is incorrectly being placed on the drivers.
Let's step back and examine the issue completely.
• CAO's office by $19,613, or just 0.18 percent over budget;Cooke went on to explain why each department was over budget. Here's his explanation for Metro Transit:
• Transportation and Public Works by $760,603, or 0.77 percent over budget;
• Metro Transit by a whopping $2,975,582, or 28.01 percent over budget
Metro Transit Services - The deficit is primarily due to increased overtime costs ($1m) related to vacancies, holiday service, sick leave and special events; plus higher than budgeted fuel costs; costs related to Community Transit expansion and actual debt charges being hire than budget.Already in December the framing seems to be anticipating the current fight---Metro Transit's $3 million over budget is "primarily" from $1 million in overtime costs. Perhaps there's some weird financial definition of "primarily," but for the rest of us it means "mostly." Blaming the budget overage "primarily" on overtime serves to shift the blame from management control to pesky overtime rules.
Still, overtime is an important contributor to the busted budget, if not the primary cause of it, and we shouldn't ignore overtime. Let's drill down into it a bit.
But we should note that bus drivers aren't the city employees logging the most overtime hours: cops are. Auditor general Larry Munroe presented the chart below in his 2011 report on overtime:
One more thing to note is that in previous years Metro Transit also ran over budget, but I haven't found finance reports attributing that to overtime. For example, in the same reporting period for 2010, the year before Cooke issued the report above, then-finance director Cathie O'Toole wrote that "the deficit is primarily due to a decrease in Metro Transit Conventional Bus revenue ($1.2 M) due to a decline in ridership of 4.5%, and a shift in riders from cash to passes and tickets."
Perhaps overtime was a contributing factor to the 2010 deficit---O'Toole doesn't mention overtime, so we don't know---but if overtime expenses were a contributing factor, I'm assuming that they were relatively unimportant compared to the decline in ridership, and that O'Toole used the proper definition of "primarily."
But then again, there wasn't a labour contract coming up for negotiation when O'Toole wrote her report.
More context is that for most of last year Metro Transit was without a manager. Unable to fill the position after former manager Pat Soanes left in the fall of 2010, our bus service was run by a rotating collection of four middle managers, including communications director Lori Patterson and scheduling manager Eddie Robar. Each would take the helm for two to four weeks at a time, then hand it over to the next.
To say this is no way to manage a department with 828 employees is an understatement. It provides no consistency, no coherent long-range vision or planning and, most important, no accountability.
You know what you get when you've got no one in charge of a complex transit system? You get a busted budget, $3 million in the hole. Rightly, we'd blame the lack of management for this dismal state of affairs. Except we now live in this topsy turvy world where even non-existent management can do no wrong, and all problems are placed at the feet of workers. Rather than demand accountability from managers, we take away from workers.
Two years ago, when Metro Transit had professional management, overtime wasn't even listed as a contributing factor in the organization's failure to meet its budget targets. After a year without a manager, overtime is suddenly the "primary" cause of that failure, supposedly, and therefore we've got to break the union.
On the other hand, management incompetence has been rewarded. Metro Transit used to be simply a division within the Transportation & Public Works department, but after a nation-wide search failed to find a transit manager, Metro Transit was elevated into its own department, and the manager position's salary increased to that of other department heads: $120,000 to $145,000. Then, Eddie Robar, the guy who used to be in charge of scheduling bus routes, a job which presumably involves no budget oversight or employee relations, was hired as manager of an operation with 828 employees and a $78.7 million budget.
The basic problem is that the bulk of transit operations happen during the morning and afternoon commutes, with lots of downtime for buses, and therefore drivers, in between. Necessarily, there are going to be a lot of split shifts.
So a typical driver's day might look like this: She has to drive out to the Ragged Lake transit garage for a shift that starts at 6am; the requirement is that drivers show up 15 minutes early or they don't work, meaning she has to be there at 5:45am. She then drives a route for four hours, ending at 10am, but the route might end at, say, the Mumford Terminal. Her car is back at Ragged Lake, and she's got to start her second shift at 2pm at the Bridge Terminal. There's any number of ways she could spend the next four hours, but if it includes going home for a nap or to get some quality time with her husband and kids, it means cabbing it out to Ragged Lake, driving home for an hour or so, then driving to wherever the afternoon shift ends to park her car, maybe in Sackville, and busing it back to the Bridge Terminal by 2pm.
There's been some comment in the community that drivers' $24/hour a pay is too much, but the way drivers see it is that they're getting paid for eight hours of driving that is spread over 12 hours of actual time. The disruption to their personal lives is considerable, and the union says they've got a divorce rate pushing 80 percent.
It's understandable, then, that long-time drivers would want some control over their work lives. There are a few coveted straight 8-hour shifts, but next in the pecking order is the desire to pick and choose their shifts such that their private lives are least disrupted---they can schedule around the nights they have the kids, or to coincide with a spouse's time off, like that.
Precisely because of the split-shift, Halifax transit operations have provided a seniority-based rostering system---since 1908. All drivers are paid the same, and seniority brings no other perk at all, except first pick at the roster. The longest-serving driver gets to choose his or her shifts for the week, then the second-longest serving driver gets a crack at it, on down the line until the newest drivers pick up the least-desired shifts.
Metro Transit wants to change this system and move over to a "block shift" system, where management makes out a complete weekly schedule of shifts, and then drivers can pick which they want, based on seniority. Essentially, the proposed change takes control away from the drivers.
These are such anti-labour times that an objection is often raised that amounts to: "I don't get to pick my schedule, why should bus drivers get to pick theirs?" But saying all benefits others receive that I don't receive are unreasonable benefits is a loser's game, ultimately leading to fewer benefits for everyone. That's the sentiment management is appealing to.
Moreover, I think the nature of the drivers' work---eight hours of stressful driving through rush-hour traffic punctuated by four hours of enforced idleness---is worth some consideration in terms of scheduling. It's worked OK for more than a century; do we really need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or can we find a way to address the problems?
The response was predictable: "We can't give you that." Dempsey deemed making the individual overtime amounts public a breach of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Very well, I said, why don't you give me the overtime payments, by driver, without giving me the drivers' names? No dice: there's no way to generate such a report, I was told.
Understand that I wanted to write an article detailing overtime expenses, and the city's surreal obsession with secrecy kept me from writing it. That is, heading into contract negotiations with overtime as a central bargaining matter, the city gave up the opportunity for a PR advantage because it is reflexively, and stupidly, secretive.
But now that the union is on the picket lines, the city is making some numbers available.
"Overtime tends to depend on how a transit operator works," explains city spokesperson Shaune MacKinlay. "Transit operators who work shifts earn $7,000 to $8,000 in overtime on average, while those who work from what's known as the spare board (picking up the spare shifts) generally earn more overtime on average of somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000." I've asked for a better breakdown, but she wasn't immediately able to provide it.
"In a given week," continues MacKinlay, "we have 80 to 100 pieces of work that have to be filled outside the picked shifts---much of that work is done with overtime pay. While overtime is an inevitability in a transit system, it is a cost that can be contained more than it is currently."
I agree: overtime costs can be, and should be, contained more that they are currently.
But if overtime wasn't a problem two years ago, and if overtime hasn't been a problem since 1908, why is it suddenly a problem right now? We could blame a century-old union agreement, or we could maybe point a finger at managerial incompetence for creating a problem where there had not been one before.
Here's what I'm told, however: besides the rostering issue, there are about 70 other disputed contract items. The union says it was willing to bargain on those 70 issues as part of an agreement on rostering---that is, perhaps they would give up the rostering issue if the city could make concessions con on the other 70 items. Or, more likely, I think, the union would want to keep the rostering process, but might agree to some changes in how overtime proceeds---I'm told privately that there are some terms around double-time that the union would agree to concede.
I'm also told that Metro Transit management is weirdly obsessed with the processes around the roster scheduling, that it is a big headache to track down each driver individually to work through the list. But surely this is immensely solvable with some simply computer programs. Then again, we're talking about an organization that has spent untold millions of trying to get a GO Time system going, to no avail.
I'll post more information as soon as I get it.