None but the most workaholic among us would deny that it's pretty normal to want weekends off work. At the same time, most of us understand enough about the realities of the workplace to be flexible. If our bosses need us to work on weekends, we can adjust and take the time off when it's more convenient.
But don't expect Detroit's unionized public transportation workers to take the same view, especially when it comes to your taxpaying pocketbook—or your weekend convenience getting around town.
The union contract for Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) bus mechanics stipulates that they work Monday through Friday, with a skeleton crew available on Saturday. Sunday is generally an off day, unless there is an emergency, in which case extra employees called in on either day are paid time-and-a-half for overtime.
The policy would work just fine if it didn't directly conflict with the job D-DOT performs. Obviously, Detroit's bus riding schedule is heaviest during the workweek, making weekends the best time to do bus maintenance or non-critical repairs. In other words, at a time when the most buses are available for maintenance work, only a skeleton crew is present to work on them.
The city and its taxpaying and bus-riding citizens pay dearly for this misallocation of labor. A typical urban bus service has 80 percent of its bus fleet running at a given time; the other 20 percent is in the garage for repairs and maintenance. By contrast, because of D-DOT's maintenance mixup, only 65 percent of its fleet is typically up and running, with around 35 percent in the shop for repairs.
Rather than renegotiate a contract that would use city resources responsibly, D-DOT has been forced to purchase 100 extra buses, at a cost of $250,000 per bus, to keep up with ridership. The total price tag: a whopping $25 million.
Meanwhile, unionized workers for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), headquartered in Detroit and serving both the city and suburbs, don't seem to have any problem with spreading days off throughout the week to keep up with maintenance and ridership demands. SMART operates with a full complement of workers on the weekend, a practice that allows it to make the most of the light weekend bus schedule and keep a higher percentage of its buses running. By contrast, weekend work is entirely voluntary for D-DOT drivers, making it difficult for D-DOT to find enough drivers to run its full weekend schedule.
This mismatch between the realities of the marketplace and union contract provisions regarding work hours isn't confined to D-DOT. Take the city's libraries, for example. In most cities public libraries are open at least 55 hours a week, including Monday through Thursday evenings and a half-day on Sundays. In Detroit, however, libraries are open only 40 hours a week. They close at 5:30 most nights and are never open on Sundays. Why? Because the contract between the city and its librarians calls for double pay on evenings and Sundays. The cash-strapped city simply can't afford it.
On Oct. 29, The Detroit News quoted Janet Whitson, president of the union local representing the librarians, saying "No, we're not touching that, it's in the contract . . ." with regard to the double-time provision. But libraries exist to serve readers and researchers. Without patrons, the library has no purpose, and patrons are more likely to go to a library with flexible hours. By refusing to be flexible, the librarians have made the Detroit Public Library less valuable and available to city residents.
Similarly, by refusing to work on weekends unless they are paid a premium, D-DOT employees have made the bus system less reliable and more expensive. They are doing their part to make Detroit a less attractive place to live, work, or go to see a show. This contributes to a poorer city, a smaller tax base, fewer jobs, and ultimately lower wages for city employees, including librarians, mechanics, and bus drivers.
Private-sector workers work late or on weekends because that's when their employers need them. They take their off time when it won't hurt the quality or effectiveness of the product or service they provide.
Why should government employees be any different?
(Paul Kersey is labor research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)