Health care and the sickout

And here we go with round 2 of this mess.

Portland not pictured, but would fall somewhere between #12 and #64. Source

I’ve already gone into why TriMet operators receive those health benefits – the job has severe negative health impacts, and so the union has negotiated a lot of the compensation to union employees to be in the form of health care rather than straight pay, which is why the hourly rate is lower than other cities. And the health care is not “free” any more than the paycheck you get from your job is “free” money. So effectively, with this announcement of requiring workers to cover some of the health care costs, TriMet union employees are taking a pay cut. And… somehow this became something for the public to be thrilled about?

This is not a zero-sum game.

What, specifically, are you (“you” being anyone calling for the firing of all bus/rail operators or saying anything along the lines of “I’m miserable and broke, therefore we all should be miserable and broke”) thinking that supporting this will accomplish? A bus driver needing to pay more for benefits doesn’t make yours cheaper. Nor does it suddenly require your boss to provide health care as part of your compensation. Your anger should be at them, not at fellow workers who thus far have not been screwed over. By all means be angry at what you may have lost, but don’t misdirect your anger. I don’t know any bus or rail operator who is happy at how much people are suffering right now, and doesn’t have friends/families/loved ones who are also struggling with pay cuts and high health care costs (if they can even afford insurance)

I don’t remember seeing any bus drivers cheering when the news reported that Intel was closing its Hillsboro office, losing 1000 jobs. Or when another 200 Oregonians were laid off when Cessna left the state. Or when another 200 Oregonians lost their jobs when Con-Way decided to outsource. You know why no bus drivers left hundreds of nasty comments on those stories?  Because it sucks when your fellow citizens are faced with pay cuts and/or lose their jobs, that’s why.

No one would blame any of those workers for being angry at being wrung over by their employers, but for some reason TriMet operators aren’t allowed to be upset when the general manager makes a unilateral decision that would change the contract while the contract is still awaiting arbitration? Now that it’s bus drivers (and the rest of the union workers too, but the bus operators are always the main target) as the focal point, suddenly it’s open season on transit operators for the rest of the public? Hundreds of comments across all the major Oregon news sources calling operators “fat”, “stupid”, “pigs” – what are we, in 5th grade again with the name calling? What is wrong with you people?!

Yes, many would. That’s the problem – companies are too eager to pay people next to nothing so they can blow money on their own pet projects.

And so many of those comments just show how ignorant people are – like thinking that TriMet operators are PERS employees (no), or that when your bus or train shows up 10+ minutes late, the driver is doing it because they’re lazy or to spite you, therefore all operators should be fired. Did it never occur to you that when a bus or train is that late, there’s a good chance that operator isn’t going to have time to take a bathroom break for the next few hours in order to try to make up that lost time? Or that they’re late because of traffic or because they’re unfamiliar with the route if it’s not one they usually do? Full confessional time – my first time operating a full trip on a Blue Line train from Cleveland to Hatfield, I was extremely late by the time I got to Hillsboro, not because of any incident that was delaying service or because I wanted to spite my passengers, but because I was so completely new at what I was doing and I didn’t have a very good sense of timing things – and it was my own fault that the train was that late because I was so new. If you were on my train, well, sorry. I did take a bathroom break though before turning around and going back to Cleveland. I’m not sorry for that. There haven’t been new operators in a while to make things run late, but there are plenty of reasons why your bus or train will be late and pretty much none of them have to do with operator spite.

This whole divide and conquer approach is sickening. Operators don’t hate the public (sure, there are some jerks that do, but find me any job that doesn’t have its share of jerks), and the public should not be turning on the operators for this. Want to be angry? Fine! Direct it where it should be directed.

  • Be angry that TriMet paid former General Manager Fred Hansen $40,000 to advise Australia on how to build a transit system. Australia didn’t pay for his services, we did, which then-TriMet board leader “[didn’t] see it as a material issue, expensewise”.
  • Be angry that TriMet poured in $20+ million to a company they knew was failing (but felt was of “little concern”) in order to get WES, because by god, we need commuter rail.

Photo from the Portland Mercury

  • Be angry that the Green Line (which had service cuts before it even opened) was celebrated with a swanky foie gras & cocktails party where executives could congratulate each other on opening the Green Line. You know, I was one of the many nameless, faceless people who did some of the not-so-glamorous work into getting that going… where was my party invite?
  • Be angry that former Executive Director of Operations Steve Banta received a $15,000 retention bonus, stayed until after the first of the year (the stipulation for collecting the bonus) and then promptly left for Phoenix.
  • Be angry about the sneakiness with numbers surrounding the Milwaukie Line (and I say this as someone who obviously likes rail). We’re $130 million short, but then got $27 million from Metro, $20 million from the city of Portland, and a $10 million state grant to which spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says “We all came together quickly, and basically have almost closed that entire gap, and so I think everyone in the region feels very comfortable and really confident that we’re moving forward.”  27+20+10 = 130? Must be that new math.

None of this contributes to you as a rider getting reliable service (well, maybe the WES, but that carries a small fraction of TriMet riders). At least operator health benefits contribute to keeping your bus driver healthy and doing their job so that your bus shows up. And again, this had been part of the mutually agreed upon compensation for employees – and I’m in favor of your employer giving you the same exact thing. So for TriMet to decide that this, this is the breaking point after all of this other nonsense that was just fine and dandy to blow money on is ludicrous.

That being said, I don’t support a sick-out today. I do not fault any driver, mechanic, supervisor, etc who is angry about the way this whole thing is being handled. But I have never liked misdirected anger. Calling a sick-out doesn’t do a thing to hurt the people making these decisions. You think TriMet is going to send the salaried office workers (who don’t carry CDLs) out into the field to fill in for operators who don’t show up? Of course not! Their day isn’t going to be affected one way or the other. All a sick-out would do is screw over the transit dependent, and TriMet management does a good enough job of that on their own. They don’t need operators’ help making it worse.

36 responses to “Health care and the sickout

  1. Whew! I’m sure that clears the system.

    Very impressive post.

  2. Wow – great post! I applaud you! I could not have said it better myself.

  3. I hear you. I just can’t get over it though: would having to pay a copay really be all that awful?

    • Paying some of the health insurance costs – no. Almost every other driver I’ve talked to wouldn’t mind that on its own necessarily. But there are a number of other factors that make this problematic – for example, assuming that the salary paid to then-GM Fred Hansen is comparable to what’s being paid to current-GM Neil McFarlane, being told by someone pulling in over a quarter million per year that we need to all tighten our belts seems contradictory. I’m not going to say that Neil’s job is unimportant or that he deserves no compensation, but when you get right down to it, he and almost any other group of people at TriMet (executives, legal staff, IT, HR, marketing, etc) can all take a week or two off at once and while they might have to work extra hard to catch up on things when they return, “TriMet” as the public sees it could still run – buses and trains will still be out there as long as there are the (unionized) operators, mechanics, cleaners, controllers/dispatchers, and supervisors. So no, I don’t think that the Operations division should be as responsible for tightening belts to save money when the people in those jobs are the ones that keep TriMet moving more than anything else.

      On top of that, this was not professionally handled. The contract expired and is going through the arbitration process. While the union leaders were at a conference (and they had requested TriMet not take action involving the union during that time) Neil made the announcement that union workers now have this financial responsibility – why couldn’t this wait until the union eboard returned and at least have gone through the appearance of a mutual discussion? And of course then the news gets a hold of things and all that turns into is a “bus drivers are fat, lazy, stupid pigs who deserve nothing more than minimum wage” fest – NONE of this should be negotiated via the media.

      TriMet doesn’t seem to have difficulty coming up with money for anything else, but taking care of its frontline workers is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? And yes, there is the concern that if this is conceded without resistance, what next? No benefits at all? Even more strenuous scheduling? A cut in salary? If it really seemed like everyone and everything at TriMet was making sacrifices then no, covering some of the insurance costs wouldn’t be the most awful thing, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case at all.

  4. This “mystery” blogger is probably the best informed Trimet blogger in the history of Trimet blogging!

  5. O_o

    I wish I had read this before I made my own blog post. You and I agree on nearly anything right now! This post is incredible! :D

  6. The reality is former general managers sold out to the union. I worked at TriMet for 4 years and have a degree, yet most union workers made better wages and received better benefits than non-union workers! We paid part of our premiums and had higher out-of pocket costs. And only 300 employees are non-union! Tell me is it right for a union worker to be fired with just cause , then given their job back with FULL BACK PAY? The union has forced TriMet to keep all the bad apples – it doesn’t matter if the policies are not followed i.e. reading a kindle while driving – this is illegal! Looking towards the future there will be no TriMet and the union’s greed and sense of entitlement will only add to its demise.

    • A lot of union workers have degrees too – many with college degrees, but I also know several operators who have masters degrees. And honestly, so what? I don’t think having (or not having) a degree necessarily says something about a person other than that they had the opportunity/time/money to go to college. I don’t think someone is entitled to a high-paying job because they went to college. If someone else spent 4 years developing a trade or skill and got a job doing that instead, that’s neither better nor worse than having gone to school and they shouldn’t be penalized if they get a job that pays well.

      As for the rest of your comment, sure. Sometimes people who are bad at their jobs are kept in them because of union protection, but I can think of non-union people I know who are bad at their jobs but stay in them for equally poor reasons. At the same time though, the union did NOT protect Lahcen Qouchbane for driving with the Kindle. He should have been fired for that, and he was.

  7. well said.
    part of the problem with the general public is that we-the Union- have allowed the Media and management to frame the discussion.
    The question that needs to be asked is NOT “why should you(Drivers/union employees) get great benifits when I don’t”.
    The real question is “what do I need to do to get the same things you’ve got.
    We have to build a better basis to connect to the public, so they see things from our view. One McMinimins brewer was quoted as saying that we ought to have to pay for our benifits cause he has to, the public has been treated like Bill Sykes’ dog for so long they can’t stand seeing anyone else kicked and abused.

    • Bill Sykes! So literary!

      Seriously, though, I personally think this is well said.

      But it’s also clear that unions are too weak today to win employer-based health care for everyone, and employers are unwilling to give health care to everyone until they’re forced to do so, either by unions or government.

      As long as this is true, we riders have to choose between the imaginary ideal of universal health care for all and the very pressing need to keep bus/MAX service at usable levels. People who believe in both universal health care and good public transit — and I’m sure most Portlanders fit this description — can support a short-term health care reduction for a couple thousand workers in order to preserve crucial service when it’s needed.

      This totally sucks for TriMet operators. But it’s not a moral contradiction.

      • I should add that TriMet workers have every right to use all means available to protect their awesome benefits. I’d do the same. But I don’t think it does any good to pretend that awesome health benefits don’t come at a cost to the transit-riding public. The public may be irrationally angry about this stuff, but it isn’t dumb.

      • That’s a false dilemma though. I haven’t seen a thing that says, for example “If/When union employees cover their health care costs, bus and MAX service that had been cut will be reinstated and/or no additional service cuts will be made.” And there are drivers who would be willing to pay for health care if that were the result. But I think we all know there’s been a lot of financial irresponsibility at TriMet – why is the compensation for the front-line workers that bear the brunt of the work done at TriMet the biggest problem, when it hadn’t been a financial burden to support Colorado Railcar, send Fred to Australia and Copenhagen, pay executive retention bonuses, throw a huge bash (both the invite-only one and the public one) for the Green Line opening, etc? And if union workers do cede on this, what’s the guarantee that there will be any visible positive impact on the riding public?

        • Its not a false dilemma….

          So its not “we can bring it back if you take these cuts”.. Its “we did everything we could to keep thing running and NOT touch your benefits, but we cant anymore, and if we want to provide the smaller service level that we provide today, we need OTHER cuts”

          With 55% of trimets income coming from taxpayers, there are simply losses that CANT be made up easily…

          LAst year it was 27M, and if I remember, there WERE executive pay freezes, and furloughs, and 120 union job losses…

          Well, this year, the gap is larger… How about this.. rather the costing each driver 200 bucks.. Fire the number of drivers it would take to save the same money…

          • Actually what we need is to hire more drivers, not fire existing ones to save money. Operations is short staffed now, which is great for operators looking to pick up overtime but not so great for riders whose buses or trains get cancelled because there is no one to take that bus or train out. I’m sure someone will find a way to blame the operators for picking up overtime, but when it’s a choice between that or even less service, what can you do? Since new drivers start as part timers at the bottom of the pay scale, they’re a lot cheaper than a senior operator at the top of the scale picking up overtime on their day off.

            But aside from that, as I’ve said, TriMet seems to have no difficulties finding money for what they want to spend it on, like the Orange Line at any cost or WES, retention bonuses, and so on. And now operator compensation is going to break the bank…. while we’re going to borrow up to $60 million against our future operating budget so we can put rail in? It feels hypocritical.

            • Variable costs vs Fixed costs..

              Since so little of Trimets budget comes from variable operational income, its based on taxes (70% between trimet and federal dollars according to the portland facts site you linked to elsewhere), its critical that they 30% of the variable cost budget not be in the red…

    • The question that needs to be asked is NOT “why should you(Drivers/union employees) get great benifits when I don’t”.
      The real question is “what do I need to do to get the same things you’ve got.

      Exactly. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for your comments. When I have time to respond, I will.

  9. It all comes down to replacability…

    Its very very simple.. What training does a bus worker have to go through to become a bus driver. Im NOT SAYING ITS EASY.. but when you chose a profession where you can be trained and legal inside of 2-3 months (I couldnt find the trainin time at trimet employement site which was vague, so I looked at NYCs bus driver and their training once you have passed all your background checks is 6 weeks)

    Well, if you have a 4 year degree, and arent using it, YOU ARENT going to get paid for it.

    But if you are working in “executives, legal staff, IT, HR, marketing, etc” which require degrees and sometimes advanced degrees to do their jobs… They get PAID more because they are HARDER TO REPLACE..

    You think trimet would work fine if all the HR people left for a week vacation?? Seriously.. how about all that payroll that wouldnt get done…

    IT?? Seriously?? People use the apps, the website, the data, all the time to check schedules.. All those “arriving in XXX mintes” signs would stop working with no IT…

    Grow up, times are tight, starting salary of 13 an hour, vs 115 an hour… Yep big difference.. But there is only 1 GM and how many bus drivers??? Thats the reason.

    • You know, I’d actually be curious to see how our accident rates would change if we replaced the current ~1400 bus and rail operators with new people. Obviously bus drivers can be replaced just like anyone else can, but there is a loss when someone with 10+ years of experience doing it retires or quits, and people new to the job have higher rates of accidents/rule violations/late times than experienced people. For most people unless they PA out that’ll taper down as they grow accustomed to the job, but there’s a difference between being newly “trained and legal” and actually being a safe operator.

      As for the other jobs, I stand by my original comment. What is TriMet? Supposedly, it’s an agency that provides public transportation to the tri-county area surrounding Portland. I look at this list of TriMet employees & their salaries from 2008 and see a lot of jobs there that aren’t directly related to providing service to the public. While I’m not interested in advocating that anyone take a salary cut or lose their jobs, there does seem to be areas that TriMet could trim before affecting service or the people who provide it directly.

      And yes, people use apps to check schedules, but without having an app for that, a bus could still run and get people where they need to go. Without having a bus driver, the IT department could do anything they wanted with the signs, but that bus wouldn’t come.

      Same deal with the GM. Take away the bus drivers, and what would be left of TriMet?

      • Of course the accident rate would go up in the short run. Im not advocating the 1400 person replacement…

        However, thats also why a 10year driver gets PAID MORE then a rookie….

        I just find it amazing, that your POV is so skewed thinking its only the “driver” who provides the public service…

        Again, dont wan the app.. fine.. Dont get paid either.. Why would I say that??? Well, good luck running a 1400 payroll system without IT..

        You would get a real check, because direct deposit goes away.

        You want to drive a bus.. with no mechanics (they were on that list)

        You want to drive a max.. with no electrical engineer…

        Or how do you get those rookies to be a 10 year guy with out the trainer (again on that list)

        The fact that a Rail Operator is making 80k a year, means everyone is getting paid well..

        I dont get why you think that having a pay freeze and cuts for executives is OK, but not for the bus drivers…

        • I just find it amazing, that your POV is so skewed thinking its only the “driver” who provides the public service…
          Direct public service? For the most part, it is.

          You want to drive a bus.. with no mechanics (they were on that list)
          You’re right, they were – my original comment: “buses and trains will still be out there as long as there are the (unionized) operators, mechanics, cleaners, controllers/dispatchers, and supervisors.” And I grouped trainers under supervisors, so they were included in my original list.

          Anyway, I have not said that the other jobs are unimportant, or that we should fire all people who aren’t union workers. I said those positions shouldn’t be “as” responsible as the others for budget cuts, because those are the front-line employees that directly provide service. Obviously I’ve been in the Control room, I know the Controllers need working computers to do their jobs. I know that roles that support operators are important. But I still think that Operations is the backbone division of the transit agency and all efforts should be made to preserve it.

          • Your opinion and POV being shown, is frankly why the public has no sympathy. Your coming off as a self centered 2 year old, not a productive member of the trimet team.

            Saying “Direct public Service? FOr the most part, it is.” is what I would expect from a low level, individual contributor of any product team, that frankly doesnt care about the overall product being delivered. My 8 year old comes off as more mature, your comments are equivalent to “im the star of the dodgeball team, and I dont like you so Im gonna cry in the corner with my ball”

            Your comment “I have not said that the other jobs are unimportant” is technically true, but all your musings put out exactly the opposite.

            Drivers are no more an important part of the product being delivered, then the mechanics, or the IT guys, or the HR/payroll people, or the controllers, or the conductors, or the Executives.

            If any one of those groups up and quite, or went on strike, the whole team would suffer, and eventually the product would suffer.

            Yes, like in ANY business, operations has the QUICKEST public view, but take for example what happened in ’81… If you think you can be replaced because of safety… Reagan fired 11,000 ATC personnel who illegally struck.

            Yes, is slowed things down, but no one died, and the system survived and frankly was better for it.

            If we had to deal with 1400 new drivers, who because of new negotiations had lower benefit costs, and trimet per passenger mile costs were in the black… I think we would survived. Its a brutal thought, but dont think you are not replaceable. Every one can be replaced, some more easier then others.

            • Well let’s see… Fred Hansen spent 2 months in Australia, preceded by several trips to Australia that weren’t publicly known until he accepted the 2-month thinker-in-residence position. Was service to the public impacted during that time without a GM present – and did most of the riding public even notice he had been gone if they didn’t follow the news? No.

              There have been gaps in executive coverage since then as Fred Hansen, Steve Banta, and Peggy Hanson all left, and Neil McFarlane left his Capital Projects position to shift to the GM position. Was service to the public affected by any of these gaps in the executive structure? No.

              Meanwhile we’re short on drivers and runs have been cancelled due to that. Is service to the public affected by gaps in operator ranks? Sure looks like it to me.

              So yeah, I think it’s justified to say that those who directly provide the service are more important to to the delivery of that service than those that are in supporting roles but don’t directly provide service. As this blog is not an official TriMet publication and makes no pretense of being one, I’m allowed to post my views and mull over them/discuss with others/modify them as I choose/etc. You’re welcome to disagree with me, which apparently you do.

              • You simply have no idea what a GM or any Executive does.

                Much of the job can be done very effectively remote, and travel is often required. Any exec worth his salt, has to be able to be 100% effective while travelling!

                Also, when you have a executive team, one can fill in when others are on vacation or out of town.

                Again, grow up, you choose your career path, they choose another… THeres happens to be worth more to their employers then yours is.

                Why not start your own bus company, and pay the drivers the same as the execs.

                • Is it important that you have the last word about this? I mean, that’s cool and all, you’re driving up my hit counts every time you come back, which might make it easier for other people looking for train stuff to find the technical posts in my blog which is really the main point behind why I write here.
                  I don’t even know what you’re looking for anymore. If it’s that important to you to be right and me to be wrong, please feel free to start up and write whatever you like about me or my blog.

              • I for one definitely support the continuation of a discussion that keeps giving me story ideas. Camelopardalis, I’ve definitely been seeing more complaints on Twitter lately about missing runs. When there’s a shortage of drivers, are there days when the agency just doesn’t put a bus on the road? I would have expected them to haul out the OT in that situation.

                • Yes, runs will be cancelled if there are no operators. They’re already hauling out the overtime – a lot of operators are taking work on their days off, but not everyone wants to do that, and even for the ones that do, there are limits (for safety!) to how many days an operator can work in a row and how many hours they can put in. So sometimes there is just no one to take that bus or train out, and it gets cancelled.
                  TriMet is short on operations staff now… I don’t remember the last time minirunners were hired, but it was probably a couple of years ago. Almost all of the new supervisors (I could’ve sworn there was a news release about that on TriMet’s site when they started around spring 09, but I can’t find it… might’ve just been an internal posting) are back operating, and the last few classes of rail operators were sent back to bus to try to fill out those ranks but things are pretty short all over.

      • I really like this question about the correlation between experience and safety. I wonder what the average learning curve for safe driving looks like? A 10-year operator doesn’t earn much more than a 3-year operator. Is his or her safety record likely to be different?

        This seems like a possible future data request for Portland Afoot. I’ve been wanting to do the Driver Issue, after all.

        • I’ve seen the data for it and it’s pretty interesting. There are more incidents during an operator’s probation period (and this is speaking on average, of course) – like at rail for example you’ll see signal & speed trips or doors being opened on the wrong side as the new operator learns the alignment. And then when they get more familiar with things, the rates of those violations go down. But there are often peaks later on, sometimes around the 6 month mark when a lot of new operators get overconfident and relax too much, and the rate of rule violations starts creeping up again. It doesn’t happen with every operator, but the trend is not very unusual.

          Al M posted a video where training manager Allen Morgan talked about that happening at one of the safety meetings.

  10. From the site you linked to..

    Maybe the real problem with trimet is that it cost more per passenger mile to operate then a typical car…

    • Eh, I take the rest of that site with a grain of salt. I don’t have a problem with public services, such as public transportation, which the rest of that site seems to hugely take issue with so the author of that site and I will just have to agree to disagree.

    • Also, there’s other factors to consider. Such as the fact that TriMet runs a lot of low-use service for people who may have no other way to get around, even though it doesn’t make economic sense.

      • @Jason, look at the study.. the LOWEST cost bus to run, is more expensive ($0.34/per passenger mile) than a typical car (.331 or .319 depending on AAA or governmental valuues)

        I would 100% expect that some of hte seldom used routes would be more expensive, just like the mail system, some houses cost more then others to deliver to.. I get it..

        However, trimet could convert to a full taxi scheme and deliver a service (2.10 per mile in 6 passenger minivans or .35 per mile) that was just about the same!!

        Something is just broken in this system. Maybe its capital overhead, maybe its administrative overhead, maybe its driver overhead. I dont know that answer. But until we solve this cost per mile issue, we should be encouraging people to drive to save money for the system!

        • Hawk, the PortlandFacts site isn’t always wrong, but that’s one of its less useful pages. There’s no effort to estimate the construction cost of all the taxpayer-funded road and parking infrastructure for cars, or the value of riders’ time spent on transit doing useful things, or the differences in the efficiency of travel in urban areas vs. national averages.

          • Fair enough.. However, on other sites that I found on earlier in the week (ill refind and post later), Trimet had higher costs per mile then other comparable cities…

            Im not saying mass transit is bad.. Im really not.

            Im saying how Trimet has implemented it is bad, and its from the GM down to the drivers..

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