MARTA chief promises to address overtime

MARTA’s new general manager told a joint legislative oversight committee Friday that he plans to curb the excessive overtime paid to certain police officers and bus drivers because it represents a potential safety hazard.

The overtime — which allowed some officers and drivers to double and triple their pay by working double shifts — raised serious concerns about drivers or police officers being too exhausted to safely do their jobs, members of the committee said. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News documented the practice last fall.

“Based on my experience, and I spent 21 years in the military, fatigue does affect judgment, and excessive fatigue … affects the ability to perform critical tasks,” said state Rep. Tom Miller, R-Dunwoody. Top national experts on sleep deprivation expressed similar views in interviews with the AJC.

About 130 police officers and 90 bus drivers boosted their salaries by 50 percent during a 12-month period ending in June, according to records obtained by the AJC. A handful made more in overtime than in regular pay. The chairman of the committee, state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, said MARTA’s police did a good job overall and the agency had a relatively good public-safety record, but he still found the excessive overtime a “problem” and he expects MARTA to address it.

General Manager Keith Parker, who became the agency’s top administrator last month, said the excessive overtime had not yet produced any safety hazards and that an examination of bus drivers did not show any correlation between accidents or complaints and work hours. But he acknowledged that the number of hours in itself raised a concern and could put the agency at greater risk in litigation.

Parker said federal highway rules prevent semi-truck operators from driving more than 10 hours in a maximum 15-hour workday. MARTA rules allow officers and bus drivers to drive or patrol 16 hours a day if they have eight hours off between shifts. Bus drivers get hourly breaks.

MARTA police have reinstituted a rule limiting overtime to 32 hours a week. Deputy Chief Joseph Dorsey said the department is also doing a better job of spreading out overtime among officers. Overtime issues involving bus drivers, who unlike police are part of a union, will be negotiated with union leaders, Parker said.

Overtime will be an issue in a civil lawsuit against the agency involving the shooting death of an Atlanta man by a MARTA officer in October 2012, said lawyer Greg Feagle, who represents the man’s family. While Officer Robert Waldo was not found criminally liable in the killing of 19-year-old Joetavius Stafford, records showed Waldo was at the end of a double shift when the shooting occurred and had worked 37 hours of overtime that week.

Witnesses had seen Stafford firing a gun shortly before he fled police, but no gun was found by Stafford’s body. Waldo said he fired when he saw Stafford make an aggressive move. Other witnesses said Stafford was surrendering.

A recent management audit found MARTA’s $26 million in overtime costs for all workers was about 5 percent higher than average for private companies and about 7 percent higher for public agencies in 2011.

The audit blamed excessive absenteeism for the overtime. But others contend that, too often, the driving force is saving money by hiring fewer workers. The agency’s overall labor cost was about 3.5 percent lower than average, the audit found.