While BART and its unions fight over employee pay raises with another strike looming in a week, a new analysis by this newspaper reveals the rail line's workers already have bigger paychecks than any of their peers.
BART workers easily earned the most money on average last year among the 25 largest government agencies in the Bay Area, the newspaper's review of public employee payroll data shows. What's more, BART employees also topped the list of the highest-paid transit operators in California.
And the results are not close. Even when eliminating high-paid police officers and executives, the average gross pay for the blue-collar BART union workers who are threatening another shutdown was $76,551 last year -- more than the average employee made at any large school district from San Jose to Walnut Creek, any county from Santa Cruz to Contra Costa or any transit line from San Diego to Sacramento.
BART's top-paid train operator grossed $155,308, compared with the $109,450 that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority paid its top light-rail driver. BART's best-paid janitor made $82,752 while the upscale Hillsborough City School District paid its top custodian $59,360. And BART's electrician with the highest paycheck made $149,957 -- nearly twice the $79,878 that AC Transit's best-paid electrician made.
The wages are under heightened scrutiny as BART and its labor unions on Tuesday enter their final week of negotiations, hoping to avert a second shutdown, Aug. 5, after a cooling-off period halted a 4½-day strike earlier this month. Both sides remain far apart on the key issues of worker pay and contributions to pensions and health care.
Overall, BART's average employee -- executives included -- made nearly $30,000 more than employees at Los Angeles' transit line, and nearly $10,000 more than those at San Francisco Muni, the state's second-highest paid transit workers.
BART workers argue their wages have remained flat for four years. They say they are worthy of their salaries, pointing to the agency's strong on-time performance, high rider satisfaction and their work maintaining one of the nation's most antiquated rail lines.
"You buy a Mercedes, you get quality. You almost get what you pay for," said Dennis Acma, 47, of Dublin, a power support controller at BART for the past seven years. "They're paying for that expertise. You got people who are dedicated that work here."
Despite the lack of recent wage increases, BART has not had trouble attracting -- or retaining -- people to fill their union jobs, such as station agent, train operator and maintenance worker, that typically require a high school diploma and a few years of general work experience.
Since 2007, BART has received nearly 65,000 job applications for about 1,800 line-level union openings. Only 6.8 percent of BART's blue-collar workforce left the job in the past year -- half the average national turnover rate for public and private employers -- and the typical union employee stays with BART for 13 years.
The data show BART pay is above average partly because of favorable rules that allow workers to pile up lots of overtime and cash out unused sick and vacation time, which has helped some employees double their base salary. But BART and experts say it's also the result of previous managers caving to the public demand to avoid strikes by including regular pay bumps for decades, until 2009.
"(BART unions) have a degree of leverage from a strike perspective that many other industries don't, and this is a classic example of them capitalizing on it," said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, a Los Angeles-based economics consulting firm. "If you ask me, it's a tiny bit short of blackmail: 'Give me the money or the commute's going to get it.' "
Union employees say the cost of living in the Bay Area has soared and BART's revenue has surged to record levels. Plus, because of management's push to increase health care and pension premiums, employees stand to see their take-home pay go down without raises.
And not all workers are highly paid. Last year, 830 part-time and full-time BART workers -- or nearly one-quarter of the rail line's workforce -- made less than the $62,680 median income in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont metropolitan area.
Acma, the BART worker, said he's tired of people thinking they are drones who only push buttons and said the employees work hard, often on off-hours, holidays and weekends, for their money.
"It's unfortunate that our jobs do hold the Bay Area hostage," he said. "We're scrimping by, and sometimes the public treats us like we're above everybody else. We're not the 1-percenters."
But BART says it needs to limit worker costs, which, as in most transit agencies, are the biggest expense in its budget. If overall compensation goes up, BART officials say, they will have to delay payments toward new rail cars and other equipment needed to increase service.
Before state mediators earlier this month ordered both sides to keep their latest proposals secret, BART had offered a wage increase of 5 to 8 percent, depending on whether certain economic measures were met, over four years. That would push the average union gross pay to as much as $82,861 by 2017.
Unions had countered with a pay increase of 20.1 percent over three years, which would increase their average total pay to $92,991 by 2016.
The pay comes on top of the benefits BART workers earn, which are among the best in the Bay Area and have eaten up half the extra revenue the agency has collected in the past few years. Employees contribute nothing toward their pension and $92 a month toward health care.
"I don't know if it's an urban myth or just a saying, that the BART contract is held up in union halls around the county as the gold standard," BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. "We have to bring our compensation packages more in line with what others have. Years of protecting the employees have caught up with us."