Overtime costs at Metro Transit are exploding. In the 2013/4 budget year, the transit system paid out $5,258,90 in overtime — a whopping 13.7 percent increase from the year before.

Recall that the 42-day strike in February 2012 was largely about management demands for reducing labour costs. “The wage increases [offered by the city to the union] would be offset by efficiencies gained through an improved scheduling system — known as ‘rostering’ — that would reduce excessive overtime costs by packaging work in week-long blocks, as well as through wage restructuring for incoming transit operators,” explained a city press release issued during the strike. The city ultimately prevailed, getting both block scheduling and a reduction in starting wages for new drivers coupled with a longer stepped increase period for raises.

But overtime costs have not been contained. On the contrary, they’re at the highest levels in Halifax Transit history.

To be sure, over the past five years there’s been an increase in the number of buses and bus routes, and an increase in frequency on many routes. But as seen in the chart below, the increase in overtime costs far exceeds the expansion of service.

The fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31. The 2012 strike fell in the 2011/12 fiscal year, and block scheduling was implemented in November, 2012, over halfway through the 2012/13 fiscal year. The 2013/14 fiscal year was the first full year with block scheduling. The increase in overtime in 2011/12, the year of the strike, when no one worked for 42 days, is perplexing.

Asked about the increase in overtime, city spokesperson Tiffany Chase responded via email as follows:

For context, rostering was first implemented in Nov. 2012. In the first roster, the number of open duties that could not be assigned was three open duties per week. Prior to rostering, and in the November 2011 schedule pick, there were 121 unrostered open duties per week.

All open duties are assigned to spare board operators and these are typically filled at an overtime rate. Overall, overtime as a result of the open duties decreased significantly with the implementation of rostering. The roster is not the only determining factor for overtime expenditures, and bus operators are not the only employees earning overtime.

Vacant shifts due to unplanned absences, training, etc., all need to be filled and are most often filled at overtime rates. Extra service for special events or emergency situations also creates overtime expenditures.

Overtime has increased slightly since 09/10 as a result of service expansion, special events, unscheduled service hours, and unexpected vacancies.

Chase says that the number of open shifts from the old rostering system — 121 in 2012 versus three in 2011 — resulted in a decrease in overtime because “all open duties are assigned to spare board operators and these are typically filled at an overtime rate.” But that’s simply not true. I don’t know if Chase is being purposefully dishonest here, or if she is simply repeating untruths handed to her from management, but like all other drivers, drivers on the spare board have to work 40 hours before they are eligible for overtime. Having lots of open duty shifts does not automatically result in overtime, and especially not if management hires a lot of drivers for the spare board.

A better explanation for the increase in overtime is that Halifax Transit simply can’t retain drivers at the new lower starting wage of $19.10/hour.

Union president Ken Wilson tells me that from September 2013 to September 2014 there were 54 new drivers hired by Halifax Transit, while 36 drivers left. Seven of those who left retired, meaning that the remaining 29 either quit or were fired. In context, the union represents 565 drivers.

“It costs $10–15,000 for Halifax Transit to train a driver to get a Class 2 licence,” explains Wilson. “It would cost you $6,000 to go through a private training class. So drivers are getting hired by Halifax Transit and get their training for free, get their Class 2 licence, and go out west where they make $37 an hour.

“We’re a training camp for the oil patch,” he says.

It’d be interesting to see better numbers. Anecdotally, I’m told by drivers that an increasing number of new drivers fail the training class or don’t stick around so long once they graduate from it. Would a higher starting wage attract better drivers and improve the retention rate, ultimately reducing overtime costs because there wouldn’t be so many empty shifts to fill?

One definite management improvement is that Halifax Transit now budgets realistically for overtime. “You will also note that prior to 2011, planned overtime expenditures were not calculated properly,” wrote Chase. “After some analysis, the proper allocation was made and the plan/actual were more aligned.”

Numbers

Service hours 

2009/10 (pg. 4) 788,000
2010/11 (pg. 4) 832,000
2011/12 (pg. 3): 845,000
2012/13 (pg. 1): 878,000,
2013/14 (pg. 1): 913,000

Overtime budgets

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. 6.4% turnover in a tough, customer-facing environment with shiftwork? Sounds like a pretty healthy number, really.

    Also…did that graph come from Halifax Transit? Or did you truncate that Y-axis, making it look like overtime is swinging wildly?

    1. Numbers made the graph. I’m not talented enough to control the Y axis, or anything else, really.