450 Metra non-union workers will get raises to slow exodus of bosses

Written By BY ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter Posted: 05/05/2014, 08:46am
Array Metra CEO Don Orseno | Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media

Some 450 non-union Metra employees received average raises of 8 percent this month in an attempt to stem an exodus of managers and keep salaries competitive, Metra CEO Don Orseno revealed Thursday.

Orseno mentioned the raises in an address to the City Club of Chicago, where he also insisted Metra is pursuing “nuts and bolts” reforms in the wake of “self-inflicted” injuries.

Asked later by reporters if raises were a good idea amid the heat placed on Metra by an inspector general investigation and a report by a gubernatorial transit task force, Orseno said “absolutely.’’

An analysis of other transit markets indicated Metra salaries were “sorely behind,’’ Orseno said. Many supervisors went without raises in recent years while union members received pay hikes, he said.

Data later provided by Metra showed 403 non-union employees received annual salary hikes totalling $2.879 million that started Tuesday. A dozen employees garnered raises of 25 percent, ranging from a “rules examiner” to Metra’s associate general counsel.

Another 43 non-union members received no raises whatsoever, dragging down the average raise for non-union workers to 8 percent. However, some of those without raises may have received promotions in the last year that provided a raise at that time — but not as of Tuesday.

Metra has lost four top information technology people in the last few weeks and some supervisors have been making less than the union members they supervise, new Metra Board Chairman Martin Oberman told reporters later. As a result, there was little incentive for some union workers to seek management posts, even though Metra would like to promote from within, officials said.

“I really applaud Don for grappling with this,’’ Oberman said. “It’s one of those indirect improvements that will lead to better service for everybody. There are many things we have to do but this is crucial.’’

Orseno told a City Club luncheon audience Thursday that Metra’s new management team has launched reforms in the past six months to restore the public’s trust.

“These reforms are not something revolutionary. They are not something sparkly. They are not sexy. They are just nuts and bolts things you ought to be doing to run a good organization,’’ Orseno said.

Metra has been under the microscope since at least last June, when board members gave then-CEO Alex Clifford a controversial 26-month buyout worth up to $871,000. The development came after Clifford threatened a whistleblower suit based on his contention that two board members wanted to dump him because he would not “play ball’’ on patronage and contract requests from politicians and others, including House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago).

Just this week, a transit task force revealed that from 1983 to 1991, Metra had kept 800 index cards of clout requests about job hires, promotions and raises — including requests from Madigan.

“There is no question that in the past few years, we’ve gone through some tough times, most of it self-inflicted,’’ Orseno said Thursday.

However, Orseno said all Metra interviewers must now certify that political affiliations played no factor in job decisions.

“Patronage will no longer be tolerated,’’ Orseno told the City Club audience. “We’re looking for additional ways to make sure everyone comes through the front door” to ensure the agency is able to “pick the best and brightest.’’

In addition, Orseno said, the board is restricting its focus to policymaking and oversight.

“Gone are the days when the board meddled in far too many day-to-day operational decisions,’’ Orseno said.

Committee “fiefdoms” are dead, a new chief audit officer will be selected, and for the first time an evaluation process is being established for the CEO, Orseno said.

The state inspector general is still investigating allegations raised in the wake of Clifford’s departure. But many Metra changes so far are consistent with some suggestions of Gov. Pat Quinn’s transit task force and other ideas on improvement are welcome, Orseno said.

“The new leadership team is open to new ideas,’’ Orseno said. “We don’t care where the reform comes from…. We just want to be able to do the right thing.’’

State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo), a Metra critic, questioned the wisdom of the large-scale raises.

“I think it is ill-advised to give raises at this time without performance metrics for the system as a whole,’’ Franks said.

Last year, non-union Metra employees won credit for their time in their position at Metra, based on a study of workers in similar positions, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis. But this year, Gillis said, “in order to be consistent and attract and maintain top talent, “ Metra expanded that credit to total work experience, resulting in the April 1 raises.

Gillis noted that union workers received annual raises of generally 2 to 3 percent between 2009 to 2014, while salaries of non-union employees were frozen from 2009 to 2013, when they received at least a 2 percent raise.

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