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

Metra CEO Don Orseno defended the $100,000 salaries of some Metra conductors and engineers to the new chairman of the RTA on Wednesday, and said his workers are paid appropriately for the job they do.

Kirk Dillard, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, said he called Orseno on Wednesday morning after reading a Chicago Sun-Times report that nearly one out of four Metra conductors and assistant conductors and almost 40 percent of engineers were paid at least $100,000 last year.

Dillard said he was particularly interested in learning more about what he called a “100-year-old contract method” that Metra uses to calculate pay — a format that has been abandoned by several of Metra’s peer commuter railroad systems.

That system awards pay for hours worked and miles traveled. Plus, those who work the morning and evening rush usually are paid, in straight time, for the downtime in between and for any hours worked beyond eight hours a day.

Dillard said he asked Orseno for some data on comparable commuter rail systems that use a different, hourly calculation to determine compensation.

Dillard said he wanted to know, “Is the way they [Metra] do it in totality cheaper, without ever giving up on safety?”

Salaries posted on a Newsday website outlining wages earned in 2012 by workers of New York’s Metro-North Commuter Rail Line — which uses an hourly method — indicated the top-paid conductor there was making $172,000 and its top-paid engineer was making $183,000, Orseno said.

Many other Metro-North conductors and engineers made more in 2012 than similar employees at Metra, based on information on the Newsday website, Orseno said he told Dillard.

In 2013, Metra’s highest-paid conductor took home $126,005, and its top-paid engineer made $147,700, data obtained by the Sun-Times indicated.

“The formula is not the culprit,” Orseno told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. “They are getting paid appropriately for the jobs that they are doing, the hours they are working, and the responsibilities that they have. . . . How you got there doesn’t make any difference.”

The average Metra conductor and engineer also is making substantially less than their peers on the Chicago area’s BNSF and Union Pacific commuter rail lines, which, like Metra, do not pay workers hourly, Orseno said.

After talking with Dillard, Orseno said, the RTA chairman “was satisfied. He was very comfortable with what was going on.”

Orseno said Metra fought hard in the last set of contract negotiations, even going to mediation to try to keep down costs of a new contract with engineers and conductors that will give them 3 percent pay increases in the next two years, and 3.5 percent pay raises in the two years after that.

Such raises were typical in the railroad industry, particularly among freight carriers, Orseno said. Metra also was able to reduce the overall cost of the deal by raising employee contributions to health care, and even requiring contributions for the first time in some cases, he said.

Orseno noted that Metra’s highest-paid conductors and engineers put in a “boatload” of hours to achieve six-figure salaries. The average conductor making at least $100,000 in 2013 was paid for 885 hours in 2013 beyond a normal eight-hour work day, the Sun-Times analysis showed.

But Metra officials were unable to say how many of those extra hours reflected legally required downtime. Conductors and engineers working the morning and evening rush are paid to take a required four hours off — to do with as they please — during shifts of more than 12 hours.

Dillard said he found the Sun-Times information about pay “appropriate” in light of Friday’s vote by the Metra board on its 2015 budget, which includes a fare increase of nearly 11 percent.