Medically disqualified transit workers get a free ride on taxpayers.
Riddle me this: When is a cashier not a cashier?
If you answered: “When the cashier is a union-protected SEPTA employee who isn’t healthy enough to perform the job for which s/he was hired, and so SEPTA has assigned that cashier to a booth along one of the city’s subway lines,” then please, applaud yourself.
Under a collective-bargaining agreement forged with the Transport Workers Union 20 years ago in March 1989, SEPTA is required to find another position for bus and train operators who’ve been injured on the job and “medically disqualified” by the medical office, according to Rich Burnfield, SEPTA’s chief financial officer.
“Rather than have that individual on workers’ compensation, we put them in a job without the same physical requirements,” says Burnfield.
This is no doubt a better arrangement for SEPTA than putting workers on disability and watching the company’s insurance premiums spike. No one wants to see a rash of layoffs when nearly 10 percent of the population is unemployed and the recession has no end in sight. But the contract lacks accountability and that should concern taxpayers, many of whom are struggling to balance their own expenses.
“There is no formal job description for the position,” according to C. Neil Petersen, SEPTA’s open records officer, and “job performance is not evaluated in the context of specific standards per se or an annual merit review.”
According to a right-to-know request, SEPTA does not fill cashier positions with outside applicants. All 346 of the full-time cashiers that staff glass booths along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines come from the medically disqualified pool. Since they were injured while performing their original jobs, no one should expect them to be tackling purse-snatchers. But the contract seems to permit cashiers to sit idly for hours, requiring little of them other than to show up. What’s more troubling is that SEPTA has not developed a mechanism to make sure the cashiers are earning their keep.
“It’s definitely unusual for an organization of this size to not have a job description for this,” says Zack Stalberg, director of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit government watchdog. “At the very least they should be in productive jobs, and one way to assure that is to have a job description.”
Nonetheless, Burnfield says cashiers are paid $55,000 per year on average (or 1.5 times the city’s median household income, according to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau survey). According to SEPTA’s December 2008 wage manual, cashiers are supposed to make between $29,684 and $49,473, depending on their years of service. But the contract with TWU Local 234 allows cashiers to carry with them wage rates from their days as bus and train operators and guarantees cashiers a yearly raise regardless of job performance. Do the math and you’ll find that SEPTA is spending $19 million per year to keep them on board. Much of that comes from taxpayer money—federal, state and local government subsidies made up about half of SEPTA’s operating expenses in fiscal year 2008—but it doesn’t seem that taxpayers are getting much of a return on the expenditure. Still, Burnfield doesn’t think SEPTA cashiers are getting a free ride from taxpayers. He admits the term cashier is outdated—none of them can give change (a security measure) and passengers can purchase tokens at only 21 of 50 subway locations—but Burnfield believes the cashiers will continue to have “an important role” at SEPTA.
“Just as fare payment has changed and evolved over the years, the role of cashiers has changed and evolved over the years,” Burnfield says.
Cashiers are responsible for helping senior citizens and disabled passengers navigate the subway system, he says, and they “play a very important role to deter fare evasion.” They also help out-of-town passengers find their way around the city, he says. This rationale might make sense if SEPTA didn’t have 256 transit police patrolling the subway system (12 more will hit the pavement after graduating from the next officer-training class). It might make sense if SEPTA weren’t installing security cameras throughout its public-transportation system, giving the authority the ability to monitor the whole system from a central location. It might make sense if street and subway maps weren’t so widely available.
Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center for Employment and Labor Law at New York University, acknowledges the nonsense.
“City government is not very efficient, and they should be insisting that everyone on the payroll is doing something useful,” says Estreicher, who wrote his master’s thesis at Cornell University on New York’s Transport Workers Union. Although Estreicher has never studied TWU 234 directly, he has found in his research that the kind of contract SEPTA made with TWU 234 is common. When asked what SEPTA gets out of the deal, Estreicher suggests the benefits might not come until cashiers start retiring in droves, putting SEPTA in a better position to leave the jobs vacant.
But it doesn’t look like those jobs are going anywhere.
Willie Brown, president of TWU 234, is hardly a SEPTA cheerleader, but he agrees with Burnfield that the cashiers should stay on the payroll.
“Token machines can’t take care of the disabled or the elderly,” he says. “Token machines can’t tell you if there’s a fire in the station or if someone’s getting robbed.”
Brown believes the cashiers are critical to passenger safety because they “provide extra eyes and ears” and because SEPTA doesn’t have “nearly enough cops to cover the subway system.”
But, Brown confesses, “We leave a lot to be desired in terms of customer service.” He blames SEPTA work regulations for that—especially a regulation that encourages bus drivers to keep conversation with oncoming passengers to a minimum—but many passengers agree that SEPTA struggles with customer service.
“My experience with the subway is never usually a pleasant one,” says Tara Cattell, a Camden County College student and South Jersey resident who uses SEPTA services three days a week to get to fundraising jobs for the American Civil Liberties Union.
A look at SEPTA's never-ending delays in plan funding and contracts and how it spends what little money it has, gives us no indication that a shift into modernity is coming any time soon. And though the authority’s decisions are often clouded in secrecy, it’s probably a lot further away than SEPTA cares to admit.