Wheels of Fortune

Why are the county's Metrobus drivers such a happy lot? Maybe because some earn more than $90,000 per year.

The contract guarantees that virtually every driver will earn overtime -- for which drivers are paid time and a half -- by setting shifts that routinely exceed eight hours, and by making dozens of extra shifts available to drivers who have completed their regular ones. Virtually all MDTA drivers earn at least several thousand dollars in overtime per year, according to MDTA payroll records.

Most union officers are on the overtime gravy train as well, even though they spend much or all of their working days conducting union business. For example, full-time county-paid shop stewards Johnny Ellis and Sam Milton each received a $36,000 regular salary last year. But because the contract requires shop stewards to be paid as if they were drivers, both also reaped a hefty overtime supplement: Ellis, $17,540 and Milton, $16,600. All paid by the county.

Local 291 reimbursed MDTA for Talley's $64,000 salary, none of which was overtime. The union also paid back the county for book-off time logged by executive vice president Joseph Johnson, who reeled in $36,000 in regular pay and $23,600 in overtime.

Johnson devoted the equivalent of nearly 230 eight-hour days to his union work, according to MDTA payroll records. Ellis put in a whopping 293 days on union business. And, based on his 3000 hours, the tireless Milton worked more than eight hours every single day of the year. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaims. "One of my typical days has consisted of my first phone call at the house pertaining to union business at 5:45 in the morning. And I've been at the union hall until eight, nine, ten o'clock the same day."

Long hours, however, are not exactly wowing county officials these days.

County Manager Merrett Stierheim grants that overtime is inevitable at any transit agency. In an April memo to Miami-Dade County commissioners and Mayor Alex Penelas, Stierheim wrote: "Since it is impossible to make the end of the bus route or a relief point coincide with an exact eight-hour day, and since operators earn overtime after the eighth hour of the workday, some overtime must be paid and is the function of the unique scheduling of transit operations. This average ... is approximately three hours per week and is customary in the industry."

But Stierheim added that Metrobus operations have been incurring a "higher than reasonable" level of overtime expenditures -- about twice as much as transit agencies in similar-size metropolitan areas spend. The reason: Absenteeism is twice as high. On some days a full third of the Metrobus workforce is absent, Stierheim noted. That costs MDTA millions of dollars per year in overtime.

"In transit, absenteeism always runs high because of the very nature of the business," Talley insists. "It's such a stressful job, and it generates such wear and tear on the human body."

Roosevelt Bradley, MDTA's assistant director in charge of Metrobus operations, elaborates: "We have areas where our bus operators are shot at. They throw bottles at them. Passengers get on the bus, they don't want to pay their fare. The fare is $1.25. They want to put in ten cents. The bus operator tells them what the correct fare is. They want to jump and attack him. We even have our bus operators stabbed, shot at. One got rocks thrown at him. The rocks hit him in the face and damaged his eye."

Bradley insists he's been cracking down on bogus absences since he arrived at Metrobus from the Metrorail division two years ago. "We have some employees who just don't want to go to work," he says. "Some of the managers were real lax. I had to demote a lot of folks."

Art Teele believes that the overtime problem is the product of a simple, if misguided, calculation that the union and county have been making for years: "The union doesn't want a lot of people because they want the overtime money," Teele says. "Management doesn't want a lot of people because they think they're saving money. They're not."

Teele's point is this: If the union allowed more drivers, MDTA would have enough to cover all shifts, thus minimizing those who routinely collect overtime. For example, a driver whose regularly scheduled run requires a ten-hour day might be reduced to four days per week. Also, those shifts made available by absences could be given to substitute drivers rather than to regular drivers who have already worked 40 hours.

But Teele notes that transit unions have a history of believing they are entitled to a regular diet of overtime pay. Some New York City bus drivers were making $75,000 in overtime alone back in the Seventies. New York transit officials put a stop to it long ago, he says. "Transit unions have always been a buddy-boy system, a fraternity," he notes. "The union leadership has always been more interested in overtime and retirement than in trying to expand the union base."

Of course, Metrobus drivers will tell you it's not their fault they have opportunities to cash in big. In fact, it's common for drivers to sleep on benches at one of MDTA's three main garages in order to be at the head of the line at 4:00 a.m., when dispatchers begin trying to replace absent drivers. "Those guys who are working overtime now are just trying to pay their bills," insists Garfield Young, who is looking forward to retiring this December after 29 years behind the wheel. He used to be one of the bench sleepers. "I had to do it. I had ten kids!" says Young, a smile tweaking the goatee on his gaunt face.

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