Metra's Overtime Express

Sun-Times/BGA spark police pay review.

CHICAGO — At Metra, you don't have to have a big title to pull in a six-figure income. Just work overtime.

And there's plenty of that at the commuter rail agency.

Last year, records show, overtime at Metra amounted to about 11 percent of its nearly $180 million payroll -- nearly $20 million. Nearly a quarter of those on the payroll made at least $10,000 in overtime pay. More than one out of every 10 Metra employees got paid at least $20,000 each in overtime. Some Metra police officers more than doubled their regular salaries thanks to overtime pay.

Tops among them all was Metra police officer George Patrick Murphy. He made $66,864 in overtime pay. That was on top of his $56,739 salary. That added up to $123,603. Which means Murphy made 24 percent more last year than the agency's police chief, whose salary was $99,387.

Other Metra employees making top overtime pay included engineers, track and signal workers and trainmen/conductors.

Metra says that, while it's hardly ideal to spend so much on overtime pay, there's not much it can do about a lot of it.

Accidents, bad weather and other delay-causing problems also result in people working more than 40 hours, says Jeffrey L. Barton, Metra's director of labor relations.

Another key reason: When Metra was created by the Illinois Legislature in 1983, the law that established the agency required it to accept freight railroads' rules for operation. One thing that meant was giving the most senior employees preference for the best shifts -- daytime on weekdays -- and also to get overtime shifts.

A lot of work at Metra needs to be done when the trains aren't running -- on weekends and overnight, says Barton. That's especially true for signal and track work, he says.

"Because of the conflict between what the historical preferred work schedule is and when the work is actually needed, you end up in excess hours," Barton says.

His preference, if he could start things from scratch: "I'd probably deviate from a Monday-through-Friday schedule more than is available."

Overtime "is a big problem for commuter rail systems still operating under FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] rules," says former CTA president Robert E. Paaswell, now interim president of the City College of New York.

Metra does have some workers on Wednesday-to-Sunday and second-shift schedules. But to deviate more from standard daytime shifts, the agency would need to show significant operational changes since it formed in 1983, and train schedules are still close to what they were then, according to Barton.

Trying to change the current rules could upset Metra's relations with its labor unions and might just shift overtime from weekends to weekdays but not save any money, Barton says.

Charles Lough, a Metra engineer who is local chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Electric District, says Metra allows a lot of overtime "because it's the cheapest way to do it."

"It's cheaper than hiring two people and paying benefits for two people," says Lough, who typically works a six-day, 73-hour week.

He was paid $112,400 last year -- $19,179 of that in overtime.

Limiting overtime, Lough argues, would mean Metra would have to cut service.

"We're cut to the bone on people," he says. "They run this operation as cheap as they can."

Metra's own board of directors, though, is now questioning whether that's true when it comes to police pay.

That's as a result of its own review of pay records it compiled in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association. Police overtime "seemed very excessive," spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet says.

Last year, 14 Metra police officers made more than $40,000 each in overtime.

Under Metra's rules, a police officer can work as much as 16 hours straight, then, after an eight-hour break, work another 16 hours.

If an officer calls in sick, to cover that shift, overtime is offered to officers with the most seniority.

Then, to show they're actually working, all they have to do is phone in to report that they're on the job.

"They don't swipe a card," Pardonnet says, noting that other Metra workers are required to electronically "swipe in" to record the time they work.

Last August, then-Metra executive director Philip Pagano launched a review of police overtime. Pagano committed suicide in May in the face of a criminal investigation into bonuses and advances he gave himself.

Pardonnet says she doesn't know how much progress was made on the review he ordered.

Metra police Chief James Sanford and a representative of the police union didn't return calls seeking comment.

Late last month, acting Metra executive director William Tupper and Metra board Chairwoman Carole Doris asked the agency's accounting contractor, Blackman Kallick, and inspector general, Hillard Heintze, to review police overtime over the last five years, according to Pardonnet.

"We need to look into this," Metra board member Jim LaBelle says, adding, "We're beginning to look through all our pay policies."

>> Read the partner story at Chicago Sun-Times.com.