Overtime and Sleep Deprivation

From time to time we hear about the exorbitant cost of paying overtime (OT) wages to Metro employees. WMATA management likes to talk about the necessity of reducing OT to lower operating costs. The truth is that most businesses (including Metro) actually _save_ money by paying OT because doing so enables them to get by with fewer employees. Each new employee costs WMATA about double what their salary is when the pension, health & welfare benefits, Workers’ Comp, vacation time, sick days, Social Security, etc, are included. Therefore, it is more cost effective for Metro to pay existing employees OT.  Of course WMATA management knows that but they are cynically trying to blame their budget problems on the ‘greedy workers’. Metro would have the public believe that the union — ATU Local 689 — controls the amount of OT when of course it’s management that determines staffing requirements and has the ability to hire additional employees to reduce OT if they really want to.

While OT does actually save WMATA money, some OT isn’t necessary. It was often ‘feast or famine’ with regard to OT personnel. In my experience, there frequently did not seem to be a lot of thought put into assigning OT. When we needed extra help we often didn’t get it and then on the other hand, there were plenty of times when we had people working with us who were being paid OT that weren’t necessary. Of course no one making time and a half is going to complain about the latter.

The fact is that no one at Metro really wants to reduce or eliminate OT — not management, and certainly not the union. In fact, sadly, many employees come to rely on OT just to pay their bills. OT in Automatic Train Control (ATC) has been somewhat cyclical over the years. When there wasn’t enough to go around (for some employees there’s _never_ enough) people would start to squabble and fight over it. Some would go so far as to break into a field office (F/O) and alter the OT ledger so that it would appear as though they hadn’t received as many assignments as their coworkers! Last I knew, the OT ledger was actually being kept in a _safe_ at the New York Avenue F/O in an attempt to prevent tampering!

At this point you might be asking yourself why in the world ATC management was still using a ledger in the year 2010 instead of computers and specialized software.  That would be a good question.  The doling out of OT was (and to a lesser extent still is) extremely time consuming. It got to the point where there was one ATC supervisor whose sole duty was to assign OT. Prior to that, the supervisors would take turns working OT themselves just to hand out OT to the employees! Really. Anyway, there was (and probably still is) the one supervisor who did nothing but OT.  A coworker pointed out that the airlines (for one example) have a computerized system to assign OT automatically and he suggested ATC do the same but of course that fell on deaf ears.

Then, after yet another dust-up over the way in which OT was given out (who got the best assignments and how many) management decided to switch to hard-ass mode and go strictly ‘by the book’. Up until then ATC techs had always been told what was available (date; shift; location; type of work) and allowed to pick whatever worked best for them. That made sense for both Metro and the employees. However, according to the contract (aka, the “Agreement”) between ATU Local 689 and WMATA, OT is to be assigned by seniority — without regard to where an employee works, where they live, which shift they work, which days they have off, etc — as long as the OT does not conflict with their regular shift. That’s what ATC management decided to do. I thought that there would be a mass exodus — that the vast majority of the people on the OT list would bail out. After all, going by the contract meant that ATC techs on the OT list would now have essentially no life. Management could simply order them to report anywhere, anytime. “It’s your weekend? Tough! Tired and feel it would be unsafe for you and your coworkers if you accept the assignment? Too bad punk, get to work!!  It’s your anniversary?  Tell your spouse too bad, you have to work!” To be fair, I think management allows techs one “decline” per month before they’re declared to be ‘off the list’. Still, so many employees are basically addicted to OT and don’t want to miss out on any that they will usually take whatever they get. This has really stupid consequences, like a tech from MD driving to VA for OT while another tech from VA drives to MD. Had they just been allowed to choose what was best for them they could have driven less and maybe gotten more sleep. Also, forcing people to work in unfamiliar territories often results in inefficiency and work potentially not being completed because the OT employees aren’t familiar with the equipment and/or the territory. Allowing people to pick the areas they are familiar with makes OT jobs go a lot smoother. Of course, that isn’t much fun for a sadistic manager whose main priority is to do their best to make people miserable.  I honestly do believe that there are some people in management who probably lead pathetic, sad lives and enjoy lording the little bit of power they have over employees.

There is a serious dark side to OT that is rarely discussed — sleep deprivation and accidents. The DOT restricts truck and bus drivers to 10 or 11 hours behind the wheel.  Metro allows employees to work double shifts — 16 hours straight — in any 24 hour period. That means that there are many employees who are working 16 hours a day, sometimes for days in a row. Some do this week after week. Needless to say, 8 hours off does not equal 8 hours of sleep. Many employees live 40 minutes to an hour or more from their reporting location. Between their commute, eating, showering, etc, they may only be getting 4 or 5 hours sleep — night after night.

Of course, there are a few people who can get by on that amount of sleep but the _average_ amount people need is 8.5 hours (which of course means that some need 9 or 10 hours). It has been established that lack of sleep can affect people in the same way alcohol does. A few years ago Metro’s Safety dept actually released a memo about this very subject — but of course it was written in very general terms, there was absolutely no mention of Metro employees working excessive amounts of OT.

Over the years, there have been several accidents (minor to major) and near misses at Metro that were caused at least in part by sleep deprivation. A few years ago I was working with one of the ATC techs who was an OT ‘hound’ — he worked as much OT as he could get. Consequently, although he could function on less sleep than most people he was often tired. This particular day we had to ‘block the switches’ in an interlocking (where trains can switch from one track to the other). Blocking (or clamping) switches is very basic but it is very important to do it correctly or trains can be derailed or sent in the wrong direction. Blocking, as the name suggests, simply means wedging a block of wood into a switch to ensure that it cannot move.  Clamping serves the same function but uses a clamp that is installed under the rail instead of a block. Usually, when there is a problem, switches are blocked or clamped so that trains can travel straight through the interlocking as they normally do. That usually means the switches are blocked/clamped in the ‘normal’ position (generally, but not always, normal is straight and reverse is a turn out or crossover). So, we were told to block all of the switches normal. He did half of the switches and I did the other half. I finished with my switches and went to help him. When I got to his location, he was done blocking and had begun to flag (signal) the operator of a train full of passengers at the station platform that it was safe to proceed. I happened to look down and realized that he had blocked the switch _reverse_. That would derail the train if the operator didn’t notice the incorrect rail alignment and stop in time.  I brought it to his attention and he flagged the train operator to stop and manually cranked the switch over to normal and re-blocked it.

The person I was working with was a seasoned, intelligent, conscientious employee. One of the better technicians. He did not drink or do drugs. He was simply _tired_ from working too much OT. It was just luck that I happened to decide to walk up to where he was. Ordinarily we would each remain at our respective locations.

That’s just one story of many.

The problem is, many people just do not know when to stop and take a break.  They are similar to an alcoholic with booze or a drug addict with drugs.  They act as if WMATA is giving away money.  Even if they do realize that they’re tired and need to get some sleep, the system management has set up (one decline and they’re ‘off the list’) means they often accept OT when they otherwise would not. Also, since OT is counted toward the employee’s ‘high four’ years for purposes of the pension calculation, people working on their high four have a very strong incentive to work as much OT as they possibly can.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe 12 hour shifts. ATC actually switched to 12 hour shifts (either a 12 hour OT assignment on the employee’s day off or 8 hours regular shift + 4 hours OT) a few months ago but that only lasted a few weeks. The dept went back to 16 on, 8 off. Maybe restricting the 16 hour double shifts to every other day would help. One thing’s for sure, if Metro and Local 689 _truly_ care about the safety of employees and passengers they will agree to restrict the amount of OT employees can work to something more reasonable.

To be honest, I hesitated to post this blog entry because I know how much some Metro employees count on getting a certain amount of OT every week or every month.  What I am suggesting certainly will not make me any friends, that’s for sure.  I am really just the messenger here though.  This needed to be said, and it needs to be repeated until something is done about the excessive amount of OT some employees are working.  As I said above, I know there a few people who can probably work 16 hours a day for several days in a row and still function normally.  Unfortunately, there are many others who have convinced themselves they are in that group who can be dangerous — just as bad as working with someone who is stoned or drunk.  We’ve all seen it.  We all know it’s true, but the extra income is very hard for some people to turn down.  That being the case, Metro really needs to revise the rules governing time on duty and time off.  As it is, the fox is guarding the hen house.

We don’t allow people to work if they are drunk or on drugs (even many prescription drugs).  Why do we allow them to work while seriously sleep deprived?

Money.

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This entry was posted in Management Follies, Safety Incidents and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Overtime and Sleep Deprivation

  1. Pingback: Sleep deprivation and Job Performance | Washington D.C. Metro From the Inside Out

  2. Pingback: Metro workers and Overtime | Washington D.C. Metro From the Inside Out

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