RTD Computer Crew Bides Its Time

Times Staff Writers

Tucked away in the maze of the Southern California Rapid Transit District's downtown headquarters, seven specialized employees wait to start work at the high-tech computer jobs for which they were recruited. And wait and wait and wait--as they have for two years.

As they wait, they have run errands for their boss, listened to the radio and tried to remain inconspicuous, besides performing some assigned duties, sources familiar with the unit said.

As acknowledged by an RTD official, one member of the group regularly fetches the boss a fast-food breakfast. Recently, the unit baby-sat the boss's daughter, who watched "Care Bear" cartoons on an RTD computer screen.

Union officials said members of the computer team, who each earn about $35,000 a year in salaries and benefits, sometimes showed up at warehouses doing such clerk-level duties as handing out uniforms to mechanics. The seven workers eventually are supposed to leave the headquarters building to run the computer system at the district's new bus parts warehouse, an automated facility near Union Station that will employ robotics and other advanced technology. But as construction delays stretched from May, 1985, the seven have drawn salaries totaling nearly $500,000--and still have no firm idea when their real work will begin.

Dubbed the "Magnificent 7" or the less complimentary "Seven Dwarfs," the group is regarded by several former and current RTD employees interviewed by The Times as a source of both amusement and anger, and a prime example of the highly publicized mismanagement that allegedly plagues the transit system. Recently, criticism of the computer unit has intensified as the transit agency began laying off workers in other departments to help eliminate a projected $7-million deficit this year and a nearly $50-million deficit next year.

"The question to many people was: What were their jobs?" said a former RTD manager familiar with the unit. "How could they afford to keep them so long when they aren't utilizing them in an effective manner?"

James Connolly, the RTD's materials manager whose staff includes the computer team, acknowledged that delays in the warehouse project have forced him to look for other work for them to do. He admitted that they listen to the radio, have reread the same materials a number of times, stop off to get him breakfast and have watched his child.

But he defended their performance, saying they still "work a full eight-hour day" and have contributed to the overall efficiency of his department. He cited one project in which he said members of the group helped control inventory and streamline restocking of bus parts.

"They weren't sitting. They did a variety of duties. . . . There hasn't been a lot of spare time. I can't say they've been busy 100% of the time. (But) I hope that's the case," Connolly said, adding that other duties have prevented him from closely supervising the unit for the last year.

Members of the warehouse computer unit were drawn together in May, 1985, in preparation for the opening of the district's state-of-the-art, $87-million Central Maintenance Facility, which includes the automated parts warehouse. Working in three shifts, the seven are supposed to monitor the computers that run the warehouse and call for help when things go wrong.

Now nearly two years behind schedule, the latest target for opening the warehouse is May 1. Connolly and others said a legal dispute with the company installing the automated warehouse system, Eaton Kenway Inc. of Salt Lake City, may cause further delays, although Suzanne B. Gifford, an RTD attorney, denied that any legal problem is holding up the project.

When it finally does begin operation, the warehouse will borrow on a technology used in private industry and the armed services. RTD officials say it will improve efficiency and be the first in the transit industry to use computers and robots to store, retrieve and keep track of the thousands of spare parts for RTD's 2,800 buses.

Nagging Question

Still, a question that some RTD employees and managers raise is: Why was the unit of warehouse computer specialists created so far in advance and what have they been doing?

"I think they are having them do just dummy jobs until they get that thing going," said Arthur Garlick, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Railroad, Airline, Steamship and Clerical Workers, the union that represents many RTD headquarters office employees.

One reason the RTD had to struggle to keep the unit busy was that the seven were pulled off other jobs to learn the new warehouse computer system a full year before the warehouse was to open. Even as delay after delay piled up, the unit was held together and Connolly had to search for additional tasks.

Connolly said that when the computer team was assembled he did not know the delays would continue as long as they have. "It certainly was not my intention (initially) to divert them to other work," Connolly said.

Connolly acknowledged that members of the computer unit were ordered to reread the same training materials a number of times, saying they had to refresh themselves on technical data. "We have had several false starts," he said.

Connolly also acknowledged leaving his 4-year-old daughter to watch a cartoon video in the unit's office. He said he had intended to take a day off, but was notified three days beforehand that he would be needed at the office. While he could have arranged for a baby-sitter, Connolly said, "I'm a single parent. . . . I'm very protective of my little girl. . . . I don't leave my girl with (just any) baby-sitter."

Breakfast at the Desk

He said that one of his workers often does bring his breakfast to the office. But he said the employee still works a full day. He compared it to other employees who pick up "doughnuts on the way to work" for themselves and colleagues.

Sources familiar with RTD management practices said one likely reason the unit was held together in the face of delays was the politics of the budget process. "The big thing seems to be once you get a person, if you abolish the position, it's almost impossible to get them again," a former RTD manager said.

A spokesman for Eaton Kenway, the firm installing the computer system, said most of its clients do not pull computer workers completely off other jobs until shortly before the new facility opens. While the workers need to be selected a year in advance for periodic training and orientation visits to other facilities, the actual training needed to run the system takes only about 40 hours, said Raymond Neville, principal systems engineer for Eaton Kenway. Workers who operate the system need good judgment but no sophisticated skills, he said. "It helps if they know the alphabet and it also helps if they are familiar with a typewriter keyboard."

Neville said most employees who take such jobs spend only one to three years in that position before moving on to more sophisticated computer training and jobs.

But Connolly said he is trying something unique--creating a crack unit of highly trained computer specialists who will have an unusually wide range of responsibilities, including generating detailed reports on employee productivity not normally prepared by those types of workers.

Union Suspicions

Though denied by Connolly, union officials suspect that argument is a management smoke screen to keep the computer specialists from being union members, as are warehousemen, clerks and some computer personnel.

"They've been hiding (them). They've got them all in little cubbyholes," said Garlick, the union representative. "(But) I think I know where they are."

He said the union will be scrutinizing the computer unit closely when its work begins.

Meanwhile, Connolly and his boss, Maynard Walters, director of purchasing, denied that the workers had been hidden, saying that the three relocations of the unit from one floor to another were due solely to space problems.

Unless the seven move again, they are in the fourth-floor construction area of the RTD building, in a small office beyond a door with a hand-scrawled sign that reads: "Do Not Enter. Hallway Closed."

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