MARTA overtime spurs safety concerns

MARTA Police Officer Jeremiah Perdue puts in massive work weeks protecting the transit-riding public. He worked enough overtime to more than triple his pay, taking home nearly $163,000 in the 12 months ending in June.

Perdue, who earned $108,000 in overtime in one year , wasn’t alone in working excessive hours. About 130 police officers and 90 bus drivers boosted their salaries by 50 percent that fiscal period, with 55 officers and 20 drivers nearly doubling their pay. A handful, like Perdue, earned more in overtime than they earned in regular salary, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While some might applaud such a work ethic, the overtime logged by MARTA bus drivers and police officers raises serious financial and safety concerns for the nation’s ninth-largest transit agency.

MARTA rules allow those employees to work 16 hours straight, but sleep deprivation experts say such schedules impair judgment and make drivers, police officers and others who work in potentially life-threatening situations a danger to both themselves and the public.

Perdue, for example, worked 12,035 hours over 33 months, or roughly 84 hours a week, to make $341,000, records show. It means if he routinely worked six-day weeks, then he was on the job an average of 14 hours a day.

“Once you work for more than eight or 12 hours, your performance really begins to drop. That is why there are rules for airline pilots, and there are rules for truck drivers that are evolving,” said Meir Kryger, a professor of medicine at Yale University and a leader in the study of sleep disorders.

“There isn’t a whole lot of difference as far as the brain is concerned between being extremely sleep deprived or incredibly drunk,” Kryger said.

Perdue said his time in the military taught him how to work massive hours — and some sleep researchers acknowledge there are people wired to need as little as four to six hours of shut-eye per night.

But James Maas, a Cornell University professor who has studied sleep deprivation for 40 years, said the average person needs at least seven hours of sleep, and he faulted MARTA’s overtime policy for bus drivers who get behind the wheel with less.

Seniority governs bus driver overtime, according to MARTA union rules. That means the drivers working the longest hours are often the oldest on the payroll.

Bus driver Milton Hill made $250,000 over a 33-month period. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

But Curtis Howard, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said the union emphasizes safety, and it’s the inexperienced drivers, not the senior ones, who have the most accidents.

A review of the personnel files of the top-earning bus drivers backs up Howard’s assertion. Those records show no history of accidents or disciplinary reports for bad driving in at least the last decade.

Alvin Malone said few of his fellow bus drivers work back-to-back 16-hour shifts. He said overtime is often just two to four hours a shift, and drivers take short breaks each hour.

“You still get enough rest,” he said.

A review of MARTA records revealed most drivers increased their income through overtime by 25 percent or less. Malone — who according to those records made $92,000 last fiscal year — plans to retire in a few years and said the overtime would bolster his pension, which is based on annual pay.

A recent management audit found MARTA’s $26 million overtime cost 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, according to the audit.

“The situation you describe is not unique,” Stanford University associate medical professor Steven Howard wrote in an email. “It is a function that money/time trumps safety.”

And when safety demands that life-and-death decisions be made in an instant, the lack-of-sleep issue can foster controversy.

A lawsuit is challenging whether former MARTA Police Officer Robert Waldo made the right choice last year when he shot and killed a 19-year-old Atlanta man who had reportedly fired a gun outside the Vine City MARTA rail station. Waldo would later tell investigators he had just about finished his 16th hour of work when he pulled the trigger, and he had also worked overtime the day before.

Waldo told investigators he had seen Joetavius Stafford fire a pistol during a massive street brawl following a high school football game and chased him to the back of the station.

Witnesses said Stafford was surrendering when Waldo shot him moments later. A gun tied to Stafford was found in some bushes through which he fled.

Waldo, however, said he saw Stafford taking an aggressive stance and feared Stafford was going to shoot.

An internal investigation has cleared Waldo of wrongdoing, and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is still reviewing the case to decide whether the shooting was legal. .

Whether sleep deprivation affected Waldo’s judgment is unclear. But Waldo’s workload opens MARTA up to second guessing about whether he should have been on duty that night.

“Police officers need to be mentally sharp when confronting a situation that requires decision-making, and sometimes the decision-making needs to be extremely rapid,” said Kryger, the Yale professor who has studied sleep deprivation’s effect on police. “That is why it is so important for people to get the right amount of sleep if they have a mission-critical job. If the one-in-a-thousand occurrence happens, we want them to be able to act accordingly.”

David Schulman, medical director of Emory University’s sleep disorders laboratory, doubts sleep deprivation played much of a role in the Stafford shooting. He suspects adrenalin would have compensated for any fatigue — assuming Waldo hadn’t been working overtime daily for more than a week.

“It is absolutely a possibility, but I think that is a lower-risk area,” Schulman said. “Adrenalin really helps mitigate the risk.”

In May, MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham re-instituted the rule prohibiting officers from working more than 32 hours of overtime in a week. The rule had been suspended in May 2011. Dunham declined to be interviewed by the AJC.

But to scientists who study sleep impairment, allowing 32 extra hours in the work week isn’t much of a reform.

Michael Decker, a Georgia State University associate professor and researcher in the field of sleep medicine, said requiring only an eight-hour break between 16-hour shifts assumes people will sleep for most of the off time, which is often not the case.

“People will eliminate sleep before they eliminate anything else, and the consequences of that are pretty severe,” Decker said. “All of us have built-in resilience. We can go 20 hours without sleep and still be intact. It’s when we sleep four or five hours a night for several nights that we have problems.”

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