Safety concerns raised over RTA overtime

Union says drivers forced to work OT because of high turnover.

This story is part of our payroll project, which tracks public spending throughout Ohio. For past stories, see under Investigations.

Ballooning overtime for Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority bus drivers not only costs the taxpayer-backed agency millions of dollars annually, but union officials say it puts riders and the public at risk.

An I-Team analysis of RTA payroll data found the five bus drivers who earned more than $100,000 last year each pulled in more than $27,000 in overtime.

This follows years of efforts to cut down on overtime for drivers. The RTA in 2013 told the I-Team it had a handle on the issue, with union president Glenn Salyer declaring the days of drivers earning six figures were “long gone.”

But Salyer said last week that low starting pay and tough working conditions have led to high turnover, chronically short staffing and more overtime hours.

“We have to put the buses on the street one way or another,” he said. “Our clients depend on our buses being there when we say they have to be there.”

Rules that limit driving hours for truck drivers and Greyhound bus drivers don’t apply to city bus drivers, he said. Dayton RTA drivers can work back-to-back 14-hour shifts with only an 8-hour break in between.

“It happens all the time,” Salyer said.

RTA officials say they grew routes in 2015 while struggling to fill nearly a dozen open positions.

“RTA experienced and continues to experience a tight labor market and was unable to hire the necessary qualified applicants,” said RTA Planning and Marketing Director Frank Ecklar. “The vacant positions needed to be filled using overtime.”

Salyer said RTA hasn’t tried hard enough to fill open positions, and that forced overtime has exacerbated the problem, leading to more turnover.

“People hide from the dispatchers so they don’t get mandatory (overtime),” he said. “People call in sick because if they go in they are afraid they’ll be forced to work the next day, on their day off.”

Supported by sales tax

Base pay for drivers is currently $24.49 per hour.

RTA paid nearly $2.2 million in scheduled and unscheduled overtime to 263 traditional bus operators last year. The top earner was Herbert Long, who took home $35,137 in overtime, bringing his total pay to $117,056.

RTA also paid a total of $389,325 in standby pay, paying drivers to be ready in case someone else calls off.

The RTA gets most of its revenue from sales tax and federal funding. The agency is expecting to receive $41.3 million in local sales tax revenue this year and $46.2 million in federal grants and assistance. Passenger fares are expected to bring in another $9.3 million.

Ecklar said overtime costs this year are at an acceptable 10 percent of payroll, and overall payroll is only slightly above what it was in 2006.

“Overtime, to a degree, is more cost-effective than employing additional people due to benefit costs,” he said.

Federal rules don’t apply

While RTA drivers are required to have commercial drivers licenses, they are not subject to the same working hour limits that apply to commercial drivers. A semi driver hauling crates of tomatoes, for example, is prohibited by federal law from driving more than 11 hours in a 14-hour shift. Once they reach that limit, they are mandated to take 10 hours off.

For-profit charter bus drivers can be at the wheel no more than 10 hours in a 15-hour shift.

“Otherwise they’d be putting themselves, the passengers and everyone else on the road at risk,” said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

But no such laws apply to drivers of city buses.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority, which serves the Columbus area, has no limit to driver hours per shift, though its union contract mandates an 8-hour break between shifts. COTA had one driver make more than $100,000 last year.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which serves Cincinnati, also doesn’t limit work hours but mandates time off between shifts. SORTA paid five bus drivers more than $100,000 last year.

‘They get spit on’

It’s not clear from an analysis of safety data whether the overtime logged by drivers has put passengers at an increased safety risk.

The RTA tracks preventable vehicle collisions per 100,000 miles, and the agency’s accident rate was well above an average of 15 other transit systems released last year by the American Bus Benchmarking Group. But not all agencies report accidents the same.

RTA officials say they broadened their definition of a preventable accident in 2015, which is why the preventable crash average increased substantially from 2014.

October 2015 was the most accident prone month listed, with 2.4 preventable crashes per 100,000 miles. This is up from .85 in October 2014.

RTA records also compare unplanned absenteeism rates to the ABBG average and show the RTA had a higher absentee rate during eight months last year.

The danger posed by sleepy drivers was illustrated in 2013 when an RTA bus plowed into a downtown building after Dayton police say the driver likely fell asleep. There was only one person on the bus at the time and no-one was injured.

“These drivers work for every penny they get,” Salyers said. “They get spit on. They get punched. Our buses get shot at. This takes a toll on people.”

‘Seems reasonable’

The Greater Dayton RTA has long struggled with controlling overtime. A 2009 Dayton Daily News investigation found four bus drivers pulling in six-figures, leading RTA officials to pledge efforts to reduce overtime.

The RTA declared victory when the I-Team looked into RTA bus driver pay again in 2013. That analysis found the highest paid driver in 2012 was Richard Smith, who brought in $77,400.

But Smith earned $112,926 last year, making him the agency’s second-highest paid driver.

The agency’s highest paid employee is still CEO Mark Donaghy, who received who received $218,709 last year.

When asked about drivers pulling in six figures, most of the riders huddled under a canopy to avoid light rain at the downtown hub last week said they had no problem with it.

“It does seem reasonable,” said Barbara Ross, a retiree who said she can’t afford a car on her fixed income. “They got to put up with a lot of people, especially a lot of angry people.”

Jonathan Chevalier, who was taking a bus back from a doctor’s appointment because his car was in the shop, said he is fine with the amount of compensation as well.

“They’re working,” he said. “But if it’s going to jeopardize the safety of everyone else, you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Another rider, Sammy Gilmore, complained that the agency’s customer service is lacking.

“That’s horrible,” he said of the pay, “especially when it doesn’t seem like they cater to the public that’s paying that salary.”

Vital service

The RTA provides more than nine million passenger trips per year on 31 routes throughout the Miami Valley.

Those interviewed said the RTA is vital to them holding jobs, getting to appointments and staying independent. This included Vince Lauricella, who is disabled and was waiting on a bus to take him to art therapy at We Care Arts in Kettering.

“The RTA is important because it helps people who aren’t able to drive to get around town,” he said. “Otherwise they would be severely handicapped because taxis and everything else is quite expensive.”

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