Union leaders say employees haven’t received a raise since 2018, despite being essential workers throughout the pandemic. A story in collaboration with Radio DePaul News.
The start of the pandemic created a new routine for Chuck Cravatta. After every shift as an essential worker in a high-risk environment, Cravatta would follow a similar rhythm: take off his uniform pants, then shirt and then boots in his garage, so he didn’t potentially expose his family to COVID-19.
Cravatta, a Metra conductor who also works in an official union capacity, doesn’t feel like his coworkers are getting the recognition they deserve. After three years — including 19 grueling months of the pandemic — Cravatta, like many other Metra employees, is organizing to make his voice heard about pay inequities within the company.
According to Cravatta and other union leaders, Metra employees — specifically, conductors — have been without an amended contract for three years. With that comes no pay raises of any kind, including hazard pay, cost of living adjustments, raises and essential worker pay, something that didn’t sit right with him during the pandemic. Additionally, with fewer riders on Metra lines, hours for some conductors have been slashed on top of everything else.
“My father is a heart patient, cancer patient, diabetic, and he ended up in intensive care with COVID-19,” Cravatta said. “This pandemic did strike my family … and I think that all of our employees took it very seriously, too.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not made work easier for the conductors. Some Metra employees on Union Pacific and BNSF Railway-operated lines, for example, have tested positive and reportedly died from COVID-19, according to Streetsblog Chicago. The commuter railway, which serves Chicago and its collar counties, serves millions of riders each year, including many DePaul students.
“It’s been tough working for commuter railroads during the pandemic,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “Not only is there more uncertainty about the job, but the public safety risks.”
Throughout mediation sessions, Metra employees have been told that the lack of a raise, even in light of harsh pandemic working conditions, is due to Metra being “financially insolvent,” a detail provided to them on the same day in September that Metra’s CEO, Jim Derwinski, received a 21 percent raise to his pay and retirement benefits. Beginning in 2022, Derwinski will be earning $314,000 a year, up from $285,000 before the Metra board’s boost to Derwinski’s compensation.
“We’re not knocking down the door asking for lots and lots of money,” said Chip Waugh, chairperson of a local chapter of union SMART-TD, which represents transportation, sheet metal and aviation workers, including Metra conductors and locomotive engineers. “We’re being reasonable. We understand that there’s less to be had, but we want to be fair to our membership.”
Metra Electric District rider Delano Bates commutes to Intrinsic School in Chicago from south suburban Homewood and appreciates the work that Metra conductors do on a daily basis.
“They make sure that I get on and off at the right stops and at the right time. They make you feel comfortable when riding,” said Bates.
Bates thinks that Metra conductors should receive better pay since they go above and beyond their duties.
“My first time riding, I did not know how to ride Metra, and they helped me and they did not have to help me,” Bates said.
For months, Waugh and Cravatta have engaged in negotiations with Metra alongside a coalition of other unions represented among Metra employees, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). While not divulging details, in a statement released to Radio DePaul News and 14 East magazine, Waugh shared that this process has been tense with the most recent meeting on Oct. 7 between Metra and its unions having gone poorly.
Metra refused to comment on its relations with its unions during the negotiations.
Under the Railway Labor Act, Metra unions are restricted in how they can advocate for better wages. The current mediation process, which Waugh expects will end soon, is the first stage in a long series of options such as binding arbitration and a presidential emergency board that unions must adhere to before pursuing more drastic measures such as a strike. Excluded from the negotiations are conductors on Union Pacific and BNSF Railway lines, which have separate contracts with the company.
“This is crossing a bridge we’ve never crossed before,” Waugh said. “We have not been able to get anywhere in mediation.”
According to Waugh, after three years without an amended contract, relations between the railroad and its employees are low.
“The morale at Metra is the lowest in the 30-plus years I’ve been here. I’ve never seen it this low,” he said. “We work long hours and we’re not appreciated.”
In Illinois, the third-largest employer for railroad conductors and yardmasters, workers could expect an hourly mean wage of $32.08 and an annual mean wage of $66,730, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2020. (Data isn’t available for Illinois for locomotive engineers, who are the operators of the trains themselves. The national average wage for engineers is slightly higher, sitting at $33.97 hourly or $70,660 annually.)
“There’s a lot of confusion and feelings that [employees] are not being appreciated for what they do,’’ Cravatta said.
Schwieterman says that Metra risks losing some or many of its employees to other railroads that are not entrenched in long labor disputes. He adds that, because of this, it puts pressure on Metra to adjust pay even as extraordinarily difficult financial issues loom in the background.
Regarding financial insolvency, Metra’s July 2021 budget report showed that the railroad was running an almost $390 million operating budget deficit, which is offset in its entirety by over $185 million in sales tax revenue and over $200 million in federal relief funding. But such a fix is not sustainable, experts say.
“Basically, the stimulus bill and other forms of support from Washington have allowed Metra to keep operating,” Schwieterman said. “Essentially, it's a full schedule. But that won't last forever, and we'll need new solutions to avoid cuts.”
Last Wednesday, the Metra Board of Directors passed their proposed 2022 budget, which included a budgeted operating expense of $900 million and an estimated shortfall of $92.8 million. A notable inclusion for revenue was federal CARES and CRRSA Act funding, which accounted for the financial shortfalls of the agency in 2021 and are estimated to be a quarter of Metra’s funding in 2022.
Metra claims that the increased budget is due to rolling back to its full operating capacity, which was cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite acknowledging that ridership is anticipated to only sit at about 25 percent of what it was in 2019 with an eventual increase to 80 percent by the end of 2024. Notably, the budget doesn’t include a fare increase, something that riders would feel the impact of the most.
Schwieterman thinks the outlook for commuter rail remains murky.
“We know demand will recover, but exactly how much remains unclear,” Schwieterman said.
The call for pay raises for Metra workers and appreciation for the work they have done in spite of the pandemic goes beyond union meetings.
Carla Black, a business medical representative who uses the Metra Electric District to commute to her job in Chicago, believes the train conductors have always been a positive and cheerful group.
“I believe they should [get higher pay]. Everything is going up like gas, food, utilities. They work hard, and have been working since the start of the pandemic and do deserve a pay increase,” Black said.
Header image by Isabel Perkinson
Map by Cam Rodriguez