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Watchdog: City pays drivers millions for little or no work

The City of Chicago pays millions of dollars each year to truck drivers who merely chauffeur other employees to job sites, according to a city watchdog report released Wednesday.

Prompted by complaints of truck drivers reading newspapers or sleeping on the job, an investigation by Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson's office found the city could save $18 million a year if it got rid of some 200 union truck drivers who shuttle workers and equipment to work sites "then merely wait - generally getting paid to do nothing more than sit in a vehicle - while other City personnel perform various tasks."

But even as City Hall grapples with major budget problems, restrictive labor conracts are preventing the city from using the truck drivers more efficiently, Ferguson said. The current collective bargaining agreements - not due to expire until 2017 - contain work rules that would hamstring the city's efforts to re-assign truck drivers or hire cheaper subcontractors, according to the report.

Depending on the season, the city employs between 1,400 and 1,800 union truck drivers who do everything from drive garbage and recycling trucks to ferry around rat catchers and the City Hall press corps. Ferguson's report finds most of the city's snow plow, street sweeper and garbage truck drivers are being used efficiently. But with average salaries and benefits worth slightly less than $90,000 a year, "the City is wasting valuable manpower and resources" on the roughly 200 drivers who are often paid to do nothing, the report says.

Ferguson suggests that other city workers, such as electricians and tree-trimmers, should be allowed to drive themselves around rather than having another worker paid to chauffeur them. But that potentially violates union work rules that prohibit the city from shifting around driving duties to workers who are not in the truck drivers union, the report says.

"The City’s managerial rights have been so significantly restricted that the City is unable to rectify many of the inefficiencies ... which often result in [truck drivers] sitting idle in vehicles while other City employees work," the report reads.

Ferguson also criticized the long terms of some labor contracts, saying they don't allow the city enough flexibility to make changes during unforeseen crises such as the economic recession. Ferguson suggested contracts should last only for four years to coincinde with the political terms of aldermen and mayors, which he said would prevent politicians from tying their sucessors' hands.

In a press release Wednesday evening, Chicago Budget Director Eugene Munin did not dispute Ferguson's findings about the inefficient use of truck drivers. But he offered a harsh rebuttal to Ferguson's collective bargaining recommendations.

“The IGO report suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of collective bargaining, the laws governing union-employer relations, and the dynamics of the negotiation process,” Munin said in the release.

Munin also dismissed Ferguson's idea to align contract terms with those of elected officials as "totally irresponsible and naive," saying such a move would unecessarily politicize contract talks. He added that there are already mechanisms in place that allow the city to retool contract provisions during unforeseen economic slumps.

A spokeswoman for Teamsters Local 700, which represents the truck drivers, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Wednesday's is not the first bit of unwelcome news for the city's union truck drivers.

In a 2008 report, then-Inspector General David Hoffman studied 10 city wards and found that garbage truck crews didn't do any work for an average of two hours a day. He also found employees took long lunches and sat in their cars for extended periods of time while on the clock.

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