Metro

Legislators blast plan to privatize T warehouse jobs

Michael Herman pulled items off shelves at the MBTA Central Warehouse in Everett.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Michael Herman pulled items off shelves at the MBTA Central Warehouse in Everett.

Legislators and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers blasted potential plans to outsource jobs in the MBTA’s warehouse operations, as officials on Monday made their case for privatizing the department.

Saying the warehouse operations system is “completely broken,” T officials are pushing to outsource about 38 jobs in a department that costs approximately $4.2 million annually. That has drawn the ire of the Boston Carmen’s Union and several legislators, who packed into Monday’s fiscal control board meeting to protest the move.

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Also Monday, MBTA officials revealed that they had quietly replaced Transit Police officers with private security agents at the “money room” where employees count cash fares — a move that sparked criticism from police union officials who said they had little notice and noted that the T had hired the security agency that employed the gunman in this weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando.

Much of the public testimony Monday was dominated by union backers who argued that privatization would not save as much money as intended.

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“Cost savings are never a guarantee with privatization,” said state Representative Josh Cutler, a Democrat from Duxbury. “Public transportation is a public good and it should remain so.”

MBTA officials say they believe privatizing the department is necessary, since updating the warehouse facilities would require at least $14 million more. Gerald J. Polcari, the T’s chief procurement officer, said warehouse problems have festered for years — and have slowed necessary maintenance for the delay-plagued transit system.

“The problem we have wasn’t created one year, two years ago,” he said. “It was decades in the making.”

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Polcari and a consultant on Monday painted the warehouse system as dysfunctional: It takes more than three days to transport parts from the warehouse to maintenance garages; warehouse workers are less productive than their private sector counterparts; and the MBTA has more than $22 million in excess inventory.

But Michael Keller, a Boston Carmen’s Union delegate, called warehouse employees the “backbone” of the MBTA.

He blamed the T’s system, noting that it runs the central warehouse only 40 hours a week, despite 24-hour maintenance. He also said the system encourages mechanics to take parts even when a stockperson isn’t there to track the inventory — which contributes to the system’s inaccuracies.

“I’m still not sure why employees are facing outsourcing when we all agree it’s a management problem,” said Keller.

Union supporters came to the meeting in force, with a few dozen people standing behind Louis Antonellis, president of a union for fare collection maintenance workers, as he testified. Before asking board members to reconsider the privatization, he told them, “Shame on you.”

The path to privatization comes after Governor Charlie Baker pushed for legislation suspending a state law that put up hurdles to outsourcing state jobs. Though some lawmakers had reservations about the suspension, the Legislature allowed it to become state law as part of the budget.

Monday’s hearing also drew several supporters of the privatization plans, including Michael Gaffney, vice chairman of the Worcester City Council. He mentioned Worcester’s own management of a golf course as an analogous situation.

“There are things the government can do efficiently and effectively, and things we cannot do efficiently and effectively,” he said.

Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray also told the board they should “strongly consider” privatizing areas with issues, such as its fare collection department. “You need to solve it,” he said, “And you need to solve it now.”

So far, the T has made public its plans to push for outsourcing jobs in its fare collection and warehouse departments, and is likely to also consider jobs in its marketing and retail departments. None of the changes has yet been approved by the fiscal and management control board.

The T has already made quick moves to replace some public employees, though without apparent layoffs. Last Monday, officials installed a private security firm, G4S, to replace Transit Police officers to guard the department that counts cash fares.

MBTA officials said they were following recommendations from consultants from Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services, who reviewed security tape and found that outside gates and doors were left open, and that people were able to enter and leave the facility with minimal screening. Officials said that armed revenue collection agents were also not regularly checked for up-to-date firearms licenses.

Police union representatives, who said they had one business day’s notice before the firm took over, cried foul over the change.

Patrolman Bob Marino, president of the MBTA Police Association, argued that private security firms’ background checks are not as rigorous as a police department’s. He noted that G4S employed Omar Mateen, the shooter identified as killing 49 victims at an Orlando gay nightclub.

The transit police does “due diligence to make sure that they know who you are, when you’re offered the job,” he said, adding that the union plans to file a grievance.

MBTA officials say they used to pay $750,000 a year for the security, but now will pay $400,000. T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the matter did not go before the fiscal and management control board for a public vote because the contract didn’t reach the $1 million threshold.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.
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