Metra’s $100,000 club includes conductors, engineers

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Want to make at least $100,000 a year?

Consider becoming a Metra conductor or engineer.

Be prepared to put in enormous hours for your six-figure salary but not earn time-and-a-half for your extra time.

You could be paid for downtime between the morning and evening rush to do with as you please — from sleeping on a Metra-provided bed to jogging on the lakefront.

RELATED STORY: Metra chief defends $100,000 conductor salaries to RTA chairman

Nearly one in four Metra conductors and assistant conductors pulled down at least $100,000 last year, and an even higher proportion of engineers — almost 40 percent — took home that amount, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.

The six-figure salaries are based on a century-old formula — abandoned by some of Metra’s peers — that pays union conductors and engineers for hours worked and miles traveled over a certain allotment. They also are paid to take a required four hours off during shifts of more than 12 hours — a common occurrence for those working two rush hours.

To analyze the compensation of Metra’s two largest job categories, the Sun-Times examined the pay stubs of every Metra employee who worked a full 12 months in 2013, including those on the seven lines that Metra operates.

Excluded were employees of local BNSF and Union Pacific lines, which negotiate their own contracts and are not paid by Metra.

The analysis comes as Metra prepares to ask board members on Friday to approve a 2015 budget that includes an average 10.8 percent fare increase for riders next year.

The boost would be the first of 10 consecutive years of proposed — and estimated — fare increases that compound to a 68 percent increase and should generate $1.3 billion. Some of that money will cover the cost of floating bonds to upgrade virtually Metra’s entire fleet and install expensive but mandatory train safety technology.

But about 54 percent will cover what Metra says is an estimated 3 percent increase per year in operating costs — everything from salaries and benefits to diesel fuel and electricity. In the end, officials say, fares increases could be less — or they could be more.

In the first two years of fare increases, conductors and engineers will receive 3 percent pay raises; in the third and fourth, they’ll get a 3.5 percent raise. They also are contributing more — and in some cases for the first time — to health care, officials said.

Some riders who attended public budget hearings found Metra’s pay formula hard to swallow.

“I don’t think anybody should be paid for doing nothing,” said Jill McAvoy, of Matteson. “I don’t get paid for doing nothing.”

“These are difficult and very responsible jobs — engineers and conductors both,” Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said. “They are responsible for the safety of sometimes 1,000 people hurtling through the system at 50 miles an hour . . .

“You don’t want someone not paid what they are entitled to be paid. This is not a place to start penny-pinching.”

Like several Metra riders, Chris Robling, a political strategist who spent five years as communications director for Metra’s financial overseer, the Regional Transportation Authority, was surprised at conductor pay. He called it “shocking.”

Robling questioned why Metra couldn’t come to a “21st century accommodation” on pay, rather than using a century-old model tossed overboard by commuter rail peers.

“It’s outrageous that riders are going to be paying for this level of salary when riders are not guaranteed those kind of pay schedules or those kind of work rules or additional compensation,” Robling said.

Though the formula may be antique, the bottom line is “what is the end result?” Metra CEO Don Orseno said. “What are people paid?”

Metra engineers, conductors and their assistants averaged $85,000 a person last year compared to $112,000 for peers at Chicago area BNSF and Union Pacific operations, Orseno said.

If Metra were to cut back on extra hours for a person working split shifts by hiring two people, it would have to pay double the benefits, he said.

One conductor in the $100,000 club who put in more than 720 extra hours last year said steep paychecks come at a price.

“My kids are in sports . . . I haven’t seen them play. I sacrificed a lot to make the salary that I do,” said the conductor, who asked for anonymity.

And, he said, some passengers don’t realize conductors are in charge of the train, give instructions to engineers on upcoming signals or work crews, and ensure the train is ready to roll. They and engineers must pass annual tests.

“People think we just collect tickets,” the conductor said. “I deal with all walks of life. I deal with the homeless guy and then I’m dealing with a stockbroker. I deal with the good, bad and indifferent. I deal with medical emergencies, equipment that needs to be fixed. There’s so much that people don’t have any idea what we do.”

Conductors and engineers are typically guaranteed a minimum monthly pay for eight hours of work and 100 to 150 miles traveled a day, depending on the line and job. Generally, any time beyond that is paid at straight time rates, Metra officials say.

“I would love to get paid even straight time for overtime,” said Metra rider Denise Schroeder of Mokena. “Some people had their salary cut.’’

The average $100,000-club conductor worked an extra 885 hours a year — the equivalent of 22 additional 40-hour workweeks — to take home at least six figures, the Sun-Times found. That boosted their average guaranteed pay level by 44 percent.

And the average $100,000-club engineer worked 505 hours a year in extra time, producing a 27 percent pay bump.

Weekend shifts and holidays are paid at straight time. And top scale kicks in at five years, so the big difference between a 25-year conductor or engineer and a 5-year one is the ability to pick more lucrative monthly shifts, based on seniority.

Conductors and engineers also are paid from 79 cents to $1.40 for every mile traveled beyond 100 to 150 miles a day. Another large source of extra pay: extra duties, such as delivering mail, or working through the lunch hour.

Barry Abbott, who helped negotiate the contract for Metra’s conductor members of the United Transportation Union, said the “nuts and bolts” of the formula is a century old and the product of years of negotiations.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Abbott said.

Abbott conceded several peer commuter rail lines have abandoned the archaic formula and shifted to an hourly pay rate. During the last contract negotiation, Abbott said, Metra initially suggested switching to hourly pay, but the union wouldn’t go for it.

Orseno said Metra could revisit the formula, but that could invite paying time-and-a-half for overtime and holidays.

Steve Schlickman, of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said renegotiating the formula could be time-consuming, and in the end, not appreciably change the results.

“You may change the structure on how people can pick overtime or a route, but overall, Metra is not going to lower their labor cost,” Schlickman said. “It’s going to go up, just as all labor costs go up.”

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