BART’s Wasteful Union Contracts

Last week we learned that a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system janitor managed to boost his annual compensation to $271,000 by clocking an enormous number of overtime hours – hours that apparently were often devoted to sleeping in a subway station closet. The revelation reminds Bay Area commuters that BART’s unreliable service comes with a high price tag. While generous salaries and outrageous overtime charges receive all the attention, restrictive work rules also play their part in boosting costs.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, BART assigned five station agents, two janitors and a dispatch supervisor to a yet-to-open station north of San Jose. By staffing the new Warm Springs station even though it doesn’t serve any riders, the transit system is wasting about $50,000 per month. That may be dismissed “chump change” for an entity that just received voter approval to borrow $3.5 billion, but it is indicative of a larger problem:  BART cannot be efficiently managed because of complex union work rules. As Mattier and Ross report:

Last year, BART thought it was in the home stretch and penciled in the line to open in November 2016. BART’s union contract allows employees to sign up for station postings only twice a year — in January and August — and officials felt it was better to be safe than sorry. So they put the Warm Springs Station on the August list. … As luck would have it, however, there was a software glitch between the extension’s train-tracking system and BART’s 40-plus-year-old main line. The November opening was scratched, and there’s still no firm new date. The computer problem has been fixed, but the system still needs weeks of testing before trains can start running. Nonetheless, the BART employees had signed up to work at Warm Springs — so off to Warm Springs they went.

The relevant language can be found at page 74 of the 473 page contract between BART and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1555:

System Sign-ups shall be held with each expansion in service either by adding lines, extending lines, or extending hours. System Signup for Station Agents shall be held each January and August, to be effective the second Monday of the next succeeding month.

It is just one provision of a highly complex shift assignment system that involves seniority-based employee bidding. The twice-yearly allocation of shifts and vacation time must be overseen by union designated representatives – paid by the district (i.e., riders and taxpayers).

The motivation for putting a shift assignment system into writing is understandable on some level:  it provides for a fair and transparent method of connecting employees with assignments. On the other hand, the complex process hamstrings management and leads to the type of waste we are now witnessing at Warm Springs.

Efficiency and fairness sometimes involve trade-offs.  In the case of BART and its unions, efficiency appears to have been completely sacrificed on the altar of fairness.  And that is unfair to those of us who have to pay for BART’s inefficiencies.

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