THE RE­GION

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARTINE POW­ERS martine.pow­ers@wash­post.com

The grow­ing use of Metro con­trac­tors could be a push to­ward pri­va­ti­za­tion, union of­fi­cials fear.

As Metro strug­gles to re­spond to fed­eral safety man­dates, keep up with sys­temwide re­pairs and over­haul its en­tire track in­spec­tion de­part­ment, it has dra­mat­i­cally in­creased its re­liance on pri­vate con­trac­tors to per­form core func­tions for which it lacks qual­i­fied work­ers.

It’s a trend that con­cerns union of­fi­cials and em­ploy­ees who say they fear the move is part of a push to­ward pri­va­ti­za­tion.

The op­er­a­tions fund­ing the agency has spent on pri­vate con­trac­tors has nearly dou­bled in the past two years, from $24.8 mil­lion in fis­cal 2015 to $47.4 mil­lion in fis­cal 2017, ac­cord­ing to fi­nan­cial doc­u­ments.

Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld’s pro­posed fis­cal 2018 op­er­at­ing bud­get ups that amount to nearly $65 mil­lion. .

Some of that money is ded­i­cated to rel­a­tively pe­riph­eral needs, such as main­te­nance costs at newly opened Metro fa­cil­i­ties. Other out­sourced tasks are in­her­ently tem­po­rary: con­sul­tants hired to vet and re­write Metro’s track in­spec­tion man­ual, or safety ex­perts brought in to help the agency ful­fill the dozens of rec­om­men­da­tions made by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board and the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But in other cases, the distinc­tion be­tween the jobs per­formed by pri­vate con­trac­tors and long­time Metro staff mem­bers has be­come more blurred. Union lead­ers say the in­creased de­pen­dence on out­side la­bor is es­pe­cially galling in light of Wiede­feld’s plans to elim­i­nate 500 staff po­si­tions in fis­cal 2018 in ad­di­tion to 500 job cuts he an­nounced this past spring.

Union rep­re­sen­ta­tives also ar­gue that con­tract work­ers lack fa­mil­iar­ity with Metro’s par­tic­u­lar is­sues, are prone to per­form­ing sub­stan­dard work and al­low the tran­sit agency to avoid pay­ing for bet­ter train­ing for its own work­ers.

“Pri­vate con­trac­tors work­ing on SafeTrack . . . out­num­ber us al­most 2 to 1,” said Tony Gough, a track main­te­nance worker who spoke at a Metro board meet­ing in Oc­to­ber. “But who from [the Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Author­ity] over­sees con­trac­tor work to en­sure that the work is not just get­ting done, but get­ting done cor­rectly? . . . There have been too many times that em­ploy­ees have had to redo work that has been done by pri­vate con­trac­tors.”

Metro spokesman Richard L. Jor­dan said that the ex­act per­cent­age of SafeTrack work per­formed by con­tract la­bor is “dif­fi­cult to as­sess” but that of­fi­cials think it is “about half.”

“In gen­eral, Metro fully uti­lizes the Lo­cal 689 [union] crews and then sup­ple­ments with con­trac­tors to max­i­mize the amount of work that can be per­formed while the track is out of ser­vice,” Jor­dan said.

Asked about the union’s con­cerns last week, Wiede­feld pointed out that many of the jobs per­formed by con­trac­tors are tem­po­rary po­si­tions in­tended to help the tran­sit agency re­spond to fed­eral safety rec­om­men­da­tions. But, he ac­knowl­edged, “we do look at op­por­tu­ni­ties to bring in other re­sources.”

“We have a con­tract, so we have to live by that,” Wiede­feld said. “But when there are op­por­tu­ni­ties do other things that maybe pro­vide a bet­ter prod­uct, or are more ef­fi­cient — or there are new things that we want to take on — we’re not clos­ing those op­tions, ei­ther.”

Jackie L. Jeter, pres­i­dent of the Amal­ga­mated Tran­sit Union Lo­cal 689, said the union has asked Metro for in­for­ma­tion on the num­ber of out­side con­trac­tors em­ployed to per­form core jobs such as track in­spec­tion and main­te­nance. So far, she said, the union has re­ceived no re­sponse.

The is­sue of the purview and lim­its of pri­vate con­trac­tors’ work has gained in­creased at­ten­tion in re­cent weeks af­ter Wiede­feld fired 21 track in­spec­tors and su­per­vi­sors for al­legedly fal­si­fy­ing in­spec­tion records; 14 other work­ers were dis­ci­plined.

For its long-term needs, Metro is hir­ing and train­ing new staff for its in­spec­tion de­part­ment and re­train­ing the re­main­ing em­ploy­ees. But Wiede­feld also hired 10 con­tract in­spec­tors to fill out the de­part­ment in the short term.

Jeter said she is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the agency’s de­ci­sion to be­gin hir­ing con­tract in­spec­tors be­fore it had no­ti­fied those on its staff that they were be­ing fired.

“We’re try­ing to find out ex­actly when did this hir­ing start, and what are their roles, and what are the jobs that they’re do­ing,” Jeter said. “There are a lot of con­trac­tors on the prop­erty, and we need to find out ex­actly where they are and what they’re sup­posed to be do­ing.”

Metro has al­ready made for­mal moves to­ward per­ma­nently pri­va­tiz­ing some of its ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Last year, the agency put out a re­quest for pro­pos­als for a com­pany to man­age park­ing ser­vices. The agency also plans to pi­lot a pro­gram that would al­low ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies such as Uber and Lyft to pro­vide some para­tran­sit ser­vices to peo­ple with lim­ited mo­bil­ity.

Even so, board mem­ber Michael Gold­man, chair­man of the board’s fi­nance com­mit­tee, ac­knowl­edged that pri­va­ti­za­tion isn’t a long-term an­swer to the agency’s prob­lems. When it comes to tasks such as track in­spec­tions, rail re­pairs and safety im­prove­ments, re­liance on out­side help is a tem­po­rary mea­sure made nec­es­sary by the dra­matic steps that must be taken for Metro to right it­self, he said.

In the long term, he said, he wants to see pri­va­ti­za­tion lim­ited to jobs that are not cen­tral to Metro’s rail and bus op­er­a­tions.

“I think these things ab­so­lutely should be in­ter­nal, and they should be WMATA em­ploy­ees. We shouldn’t be re­ly­ing on out­side con­trac­tors to do these func­tions as part of the nor­mal busi­ness of op­er­at­ing a tran­sit sys­tem,” Gold­man said. “On the es­sen­tial safety func­tions, those are things we should be get­ting back to re­ly­ing on WMATA em­ploy­ees to perto form.”

Still, the in­creased spend­ing on con­tract la­bor is part of a larger na­tional trend, as tran­sit agen­cies around the coun­try seek to cut costs by pri­va­tiz­ing work that can be done more cheaply by out­side con­trac­tors.

And, in some cases, just the threat of pri­va­ti­za­tion has mon­e­tary value. At the Mas­sachusetts Bay Trans­porta­tion Author­ity (MBTA), Bos­ton’s tran­sit sys­tem, state of­fi­cials cel­e­brated the con­clu­sion of con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions in De­cem­ber af­ter they won a slew of con­ces­sions from the area’s tran­sit unions. By the end of the process, the unions had agreed to de­fer a sched­uled wage in­crease, lower the wage rate for new em­ploy­ees and limit work­ers’ abil­ity to col­lect over­time pay. The state ex­pects to save $81 mil­lion over the next four years.

How? Ac­cord­ing to Mas­sachusetts Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Stephanie Pol­lack, the state was able to push back against the tran­sit unions by tak­ing se­ri­ous steps to­ward pri­va­tiz­ing cen­tral roles at the MBTA. Of­fi­cials sought out pro­pos­als from pri­vate com­pa­nies about how much they would charge to take on ba­sic ser­vices.

Then, the state de­liv­ered an ul­ti­ma­tum to the tran­sit unions: Beat that price, or we’ll skip bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion and sim­ply con­tract out those jobs.

“When we talked about pri­va­ti­za­tion, we didn’t put it on the ta­ble as a threat — we put it on the ta­ble as a tool,” Pol­lack said. “And when they re­al­ized that we were se­ri­ous . . . it changed the dy­namic at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble in a sub­stan­tial way.”

“Who . . . over­sees con­trac­tor work to en­sure that the work is not just get­ting done, but get­ting done cor­rectly?” Tony Gough, Metro track worker

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