Thursday, May 9, 2013

Absenteeism and Overtime Pay in Trimet

       Trimet has recently made the news for its problematic overtime policy for bus and rail operators.  Revelations show a lack of regulation at both the State level and within Trimet itself.  Current Trimet rules state that light rail operators are required to take seven hours off between shifts, operators can’t work more than 17 hours during a 24 hour period, and that after 13 straight days of working, bus and rail operators are required to take the next day off.  A recent article reported that a single Trimet bus driver earned upwards of $116,624 in 2012, with $64,408 of that being overtime pay.  Apparently working 70 hours a week for fifty-two weeks straight is a lucrative decision.  Or is it?

After nodding off, the operator of a yellow line light rail train crashed into the barrier at the Expo Center. Following this incident, the Oregonian started an investigation that revealed 21 fatigue related crashes had occurred in a 3 ½ year period.  Why is there so much fatigue?
            As mentioned above, working massive amounts of overtime to make a six figure salary has in dangerous fatigue.  In 2011, there were eight drivers that made around half their $100,000+ annual income through overtime pay.  There is so much overtime work available, because so many drivers do not show up for work.   Absenteeism, which is a problem not unique to Trimet, is one of the biggest problems facing most transit agencies nationwide.   Transport Reviews journal cited a 1978 study that found the average U.S. transit operator was absent 29-57 days per year.  A quick Google search reveals this trend has not shifted.  The report went on to state the three main factors affecting the operators decision to not go into work: 1) ample overtime pay—ironically because people choose to be absent--, 2) scheduling inflexibility, and 3) occupational stresses.   The buses and trains have to run, so transit agencies are happy to oblige willing drivers.  An obvious question is why do they not hire more drivers?  According to a Portland Transport blog post, Trimet pays a considerable amount for each employee’s benefit package.  It ends up being cheaper to pay 30 hours of overtime than to hire a new driver.   Unfortunately this puts riders at risk.  Would one or two extra drivers solve this problem?  Are service or benefit cuts the solution? 

                The Chicago TransitAuthority (CTA) reported last year they had a huge success in decreasing their absentee rates by simply enforcing their own scheduling protocols.  Trimet first needs to formulate a set of scheduling protocols and enforce from there. This has already started with their Fatigue Fighting Agreement, which Camille covers in her own blog post here (link). Check it out for more details.

This was pleasantly reviewed by Shawn Ingersoll.


  1. I didn't know this about Trimet but to be honest, I'm not surprised. Is there a chance that absenteeism is largely a result of actual sickness? I think of this because the drivers' "workplace" is constantly in contact with huge inflows and outflows of multiple people all day long, which possibly makes them somewhat more susceptible to illness than for example, someone who works in an office cubicle. Add that to fatigue and the pressure to get in overtime hours and there's a recipe for some long-term ailments (like an intense flu that should've only lasted a week but sticks around for several weeks and just won't go away). I'd be really interested to see Trimet take an initiative like the CTA and see what kind of results we could expect from that.

  2. I'm sure that the stress and location of the job has something to do with absenteeism. I read that average absentee rates for the workplace is 2-4% whereas it's 10% for transit agencies. In the literature I've been able to find (there is an OTREC report on Trimet's absenteeism), blame seems mostly to fall to the overtime pay structure and a lack of oversight. Sometimes overtime is scheduled in and other times it's picked up when people don't show up. There is what is called an "extraboard" which is a group of operators whose only job is to work the hours of those who are absent. If overtime is so easy and encouraged to accrue, than the wages lost due to an absence can very easily be made up.

    Also is was suggested by someone who was an operator at Trimet, that the operators never knew their supervisors. Nine supervisors for the whole fleet could never know who isn't making wise choices. There are so many variables to this problem. How do you see it being played out? What do you think should change first?

  3. Great post, first off. This seems to be a hot topic for all transit agencies these days. I can tell you that it appears that much of the absenteeism "outbreak" comes from the culture at transit agencies. If one driver figures out that they can get paid so much in overtime and take a few more days off, the word spreads around quick. So personally, I think a little mix of policy changes (that could potentially limit the amount of overtime allowed) and culture changes could potentially minimize the issue. However, as we all know, policy changes related to unionized worker is no easy task, nor is changing a workplace's culture.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.