Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Earning just rewards
isn’t counted only
in hard cash

WHEN you're sitting in a car inching forward at about 10 miles a hour in an unexpected midafternoon traffic jam on the H-1, there's a whole lot of time to think, mostly about why it is that you're sitting in a car moving at such a snail's pace that a six-mile jaunt into town that would normally take 15 minutes is consuming almost an hour.

Mean thoughts about striking bus drivers give way to mean thoughts about other motorists -- why don't you all stay home? -- then to scolding myself for not setting off earlier or taking another route. Which, by the way, won't make much of a difference since surface streets are just as congested.

TheBus strike is wearing on everyone from commuters who have had to jockey with an influx of more cars and bus riders who've had to find other ways to get where they need to go, to picketing drivers and other transit employees. We've all had the addition burden of having to listen to braying union officials, politicians and the dozens of gadfly wanna-be traffic experts who puff "told you sos" and "should-haves and could-haves" about rail transit, BRT, mass transit, highways in the skies and on the reefs and other so-called traffic solutions.

But one of the more thought-provoking issues has been this discussion about whether bus drivers, who average about $44,000 annually at top scale, should get pay raises. In scores of letters to the editor and comments on newscasts, people remark that bus drivers don't deserve to make more money than teachers, police officers and firefighters. The comparisons seem to peg pay to the importance of a person's job in our society.

Would that it worked that way.

If that were the case, the people whose responsibility is to educate children would have salaries that rival those of the richest corporate executives in the country. Just as Dick Cheney was paid big bucks from his days as head of Halliburton -- the oil and gas industry giant that has curiously captured the lion's share of the government's multi-million-dollar contracts to "rebuild" Iraq -- Mrs. Sato at the local elementary school would cash a seven-figure paycheck.

If that were the case, the nurse at an acute care hospital would earn just as much as the doctor who prescribes treatment. After all, it is the nurse who directly administers the doctor's orders, who gives patients medication, listens to their complaints and sees to their minute-by-minute needs. Janitors generally receive minimum wage, but aren't they just as important to a hospital's operations? Their keeping the place clean by sweeping up blood-soaked swabs and disinfecting toilets, sinks and floors contribute greatly to a patient's well-being.

The equation of money to value of a person's work product runs askew because it is difficult to gauge an individual's level of performance. A worker is generally paid by classification without measuring how well he or she does the job. An effective teacher with five years of experience draws the same pay as one who isn't as successful with students but who also has five years in the classroom. A nurse who wields a syringe so skillfully that the patient feels little pain from an injection doesn't receive a higher salary than one who bungles the same procedure.

So rewards, then, come in packages not necessarily wrapped in greenbacks. They arrive from self-satisfaction in doing a good job day in and day out, in having the patience to wait to press on the accelerator until an elderly passenger has climbed the steep steps of the bus and found a seat, from maneuvering carefully as impatient motorists careen past a stop and from having the forbearance to answer politely for the millionth time the same questions about a route.

Until we walk in their shoes, or, in this case, take the steering wheel of a 40-foot-long, 39,600-pound vehicle, we can only guess what driving a bus is like. Some transit workers may truly deserve a pay raise, but maybe they could wait until the city is in better financial shape. For now, they may have to make do with good will of passengers and other taxpayers.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at:


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