More Reasons to Fear Public Employee Unions

Most all local governments have extensive programs in place for government inspection of elevators because, you know, private businesses can't be trusted to operate safe equipment.  But it turns out the least safe elevators are operated by the government itself:

New York City Transit
has spent close to $1 billion to install more than 200 new elevators
and escalators in the subway system since the early 1990s, and it plans
to spend almost that much again for dozens more machines through the
end of the next decade. It is an investment of historic dimensions,
aimed at better serving millions of riders and opening more of the
subway to the disabled.

These are the results:

¶One of every six elevators and
escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a
month last year, according to the transit agency's data.

169 escalators in the subway averaged 68 breakdowns or repair calls
each last year, with the worst machines logging more than double that
number. And some of the least reliable escalators in the system are
also some of the newest, accumulating thousands of hours out of service
for what officials described as a litany of mechanical flaws.

¶Two-thirds of the subway elevators "” many of which travel all of 15
feet "” had at least one breakdown last year in which passengers were
trapped inside.

The whole thing is pretty depressing.  But perhaps just as depressing is the fact that the NY Times, in a quite lengthy article, never once questions why the government is in the elevator maintenance business at all.  You see, the New York City Transit system hires all of its own maintenance people, presumably because, though the article never mentions it, the public employees union insists that these functions remain in house.  OK, here is a quiz:  How many private elevator owners in New York City have their own staff repair elevators?  My guess is the answer is close to zero.  Everyone uses third party elevator equipment repair companies or operate under long-term service contracts with the manufacturer.  Why?  Well, lets see what problems NY Transit faces:

"They don't have enough competent people with the proper training,"
said Michele O'Toole, the president of J. Martin Associates, which the
transit agency hired in 2006 to evaluate its elevator operations. "It
all reflects back to qualifications, training, capabilities."...

Elevators and escalators are spread out over a far-flung system,
requiring more mechanics and slowing responses to breakdowns. There has
been little standardization of parts, so mechanics must cope with a
bewildering hodgepodge of machinery. And the machines, which operate 24
hours a day, are subject to all sorts of abuse: Elevators become
makeshift bathrooms, and escalator steps are pounded by heavily loaded
hand trucks.

Guess what?  These are all classic reasons for outsourcing.  Manhattan elevator maintenance companies are set up to handle a far-flung elevator inventory, and can more efficiently stock parts, buy special equipment, and provide specialized training than can any individual operator.   Shared external capacity can also be sized and used much more efficiently to deal with random failures -- the more elevators in a region one maintains, the better staff can be utilized across a stochastic system.

But of course, the NY Times is never going to go against any public employee union, so it takes the line that this is a good governance issue, rather than a structural issue where an individual elevator owner is always going to be less efficient than outsourcing to a large regional third party company.  It compares NY Transit to other public transit agencies, but not to other private owners of elevators.  My guess is Donald Trump owns more elevators than NY Transit - how does he handle elevator maintenance?

By the way, the article says that there are 167 elevators and 169 escalators in the system.  They also say there are 200 full-time maintenance people.  So, on average, one person spends 60% of their year on a single elevator or escalator.  Think about the elevators and escalators you ride every day.  Can you imagine someone working on it for 1200 hours a year?

And what is this in the quotes above about slow responses to breakdowns in the far-flung empire?  With 200 people for 336 devices, they could practically assign an individual repair person to each one.   I can see him now, with his toolbox, sitting on a folding chair in the back of the elevator with a box of Krispy Kremes, waiting to spring into action at the moment of failure.


  1. dave:

    a couple of notes. First, the article notes that privately run elevator maintenance people are required by their union to have four years of training. This suggests that the problem lies not with unions but rather with governance issues, contrary to your claims. It is true of course that the private sector should be able to handle this maintenance better than the government can.

    Further, as someone who uses the 168th st station on a daily basis, allow me to add some local color. The elevators there feature an elevator operator, typically an obese person likely on some sort of modified duty. Its amiserable job, especially in the summer, as these elevators are not air conditioned. It gladdens my heart to think that a person paid with my taxes runs the risk of getting stuck in those elevators.

    Fortunately there is another line at that station for which elevator access is not required.

    Finally, I will submit this whole issue as pretty solid evidence that, contrary to what the guidebooks tell you, NYC is not friendly to those who are wheelchair bound.

    Were nyc's subways privately managed none of this would be a concern.

  2. morganovich:

    so here's the number from the news story that blew my mind.

    $25 million a year in maintenance? over 200 elevators/escalators that comes out to $125k per machine per year. that just seems flat out impossible.

  3. Bill:

    Not impossible in a government operation.

    First, consider the incredible pyramid of managers and supervisors piled on top of the few who do useful work.

    Then think of the anti-competitive procurement policies that run up the cost of parts to astronomical levels.

    Consider that the fringe benefit costs are far higher in government than in private industry, and the accretion of byzantine work rules constantly drives down productivity.

    Then add the usual graft, and bingo, you have non-working machines and $25 million a year vanished. But, hey, the good old taxpayer is always good for more.

  4. Brad Warbiany:

    "With 200 people for 336 devices, they could practically assign an individual repair person to each one. I can see him now, with his toolbox, sitting on a folding chair in the back of the elevator with a box of Krispy Kremes, waiting to spring into action at the moment of failure."

    Are you kidding? That ill-trained government employee is still likely smart enough to know he shouldn't actually be inside that unsafe elevator! After all, with the track record of the NYC transit authority, he should know better than to trust his own handiwork.

  5. DG:

    I am not sure how relevant the following is, but it relates to elevators, so...

    I work in Maryland. I use two elevators every day related to that. One is the elevator in my privately-owned work building and the other is the one in the county-owned parking garage a few blocks away. As far as I know, all elevators in Maryland are supposed to be inspected annually by the state government's Department of Labor, Licensing, and Registration. I infer this because each elevator has a certificate--unless it has been banished to the building's office--with an expiration date. In the work elevator, the certificate is replaced about every 18 months, meaning the inspections do not occur as frequently as state law says they should. In the parking garage elevator, the certificate's expiration date is 2003. In other words, this elevator has not been officially inspected in almost six years. This situation does imply that DLLR is much less stringent in inspecting the elevators owned by governments compared to hassling private elevator operators annually, and as in New York, they are "strapped" for resources to conduct the inspections required by the law.

  6. Mike:

    Hey, I work in a Goobermint building her in Joisey and we have been ASSURED by our union that our elevators will be replaced-by low bid ones- by no later than MARCH 2005!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!