The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) said today that it welcomes any public discussion of its staffing levels, overtime costs and safety procedures. “Fiscal responsibility and prudence are driving forces in RIPTA’s operations. Any suggestion otherwise is based on a misunderstanding of the facts,” said RIPTA CEO Raymond Studley.
Questions have been raised about RIPTA’s overtime costs, but “overtime is an issue throughout the transit industry,” Studley explained. “The question is how to manage those costs as effectively and efficiently as possible.”
The challenge is how to balance the cost of permanent staffing with the cost of daily overtime, said Studley. “The fact is, it’s often more cost-effective to pay overtime than to incur the cost of hiring more employees.” For example, a top-scale driver with a salary of about $58,000, costs the Authority an additional $44,000 in benefits and retirement costs. This means that an experienced driver who earns less than $44,000 in overtime actually represents an overall savings to RIPTA, Studley explained. “People have to remember that if you simply go out to hire more drivers or mechanics to bring down overtime, you will burden taxpayers down the road with the cost of paying pensions and other post-retirement benefits,“ he said.
RIPTA works hard to maintain an appropriate staffing level, said Studley, but this too can be a challenge. This year RIPTA increased its budgeted driver positions from 391 to 401, but it can be difficult to fill these jobs. As Studley explained, “the main problem is that there is a nationwide shortage of people with Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs),” which are legally required for all bus drivers, and there is also a shortage of diesel mechanics who are able to work on RIPTA buses. These shortages hamper RIPTA’s constant need to infuse its workforce with new workers as long-term employees retire. Nonetheless, “RIPTA continues to aggressively recruit employees by hosting job fairs, attending employment recruitment events and advertising,” Studley said.
Other factors that play into personnel and overtime costs are provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between RIPTA and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents drivers and other employees who are eligible for overtime. RIPTA and the ATU have been without a contract since June 2016, and are scheduled to participate in binding arbitration. “We are currently headed for arbitration with the ATU so we can appropriately manage labor costs and benefits, and so we can secure improved management controls over a number of operational issues, including overtime,” said Studley.
Despite all these issues, Studley said, RIPTA’s payroll costs were under budget in Fiscal 2016, and are running approximately 3% over budget in Fiscal 2017. “The notion that we aren’t properly managing staffing and overtime costs just isn’t true.”
Whatever the financial environment, “safety will always be our highest priority,” said Studley. RIPTA meets or exceeds safety standards set by federal regulations and also employs industry “best practices.” Regardless of overtime, there is a limit on how long drivers can work, and they must have a minimum of nine hours off between full shifts. “These measures are in place to make sure that drivers don’t get fatigued from too much driving,” Studley explained. “When it comes to safety, we will use every tool – from training to technology – that we have at our disposal.”
Studley concluded by saying, “The oversight that I and my senior staff exercise in managing staffing levels and overtime is just one example of the due diligence we apply to all aspects of RIPTA operations on a daily basis.”