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BART janitor made $276,000 last year: a parable of overtime pay

BART janitor: With a massive amount of overtime, Liang Zhao Zhang was able to earn 10 times the median pay for a janitor nationwide in 2015. Some applaud his work ethic, but others challenge the cost to taxpayers.

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A Bay Area Rapid Transit train leaves the station Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Oakland, Calif.

Ben Margot/AP

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A janitor on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, pulled in a stunning six-figure salary last year thanks to hard work, perseverance, and lots and lots of overtime.

Liang Zhao Zhang, like many fellow members of BART's janitorial staff, works overtime to earn more in his low-paying field. But unlike most BART workers, Mr. Zhang worked more than 4,000 hours in 2015, nearly twice what would be expected out of a worker with a typical 40-hour work week, according to local media reports.

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Zhang was also able to take advantage of overtime pay, including time-and-a-half pay and double pay, to make far more than an average janitor is usually paid. In 2015, Zhang took home $276,121.07 in salary plus benefits in a field where the median pay is only $27,000 nationwide, SFGate.com reports.

Of course, working in one of the US's most expensive cities gave Zhang a significant edge over the median, beginning with a base salary of $57,945.87. But in order to take home his massive paycheck in 2015, Zhang worked 1,420.73 hours of regular work, 1,821.53 hours of time and a half, 601 hours of double time, and 63 hours of holiday work, according to SFGate. As a result of the extra hours, Zhang was able to add $162,050.06 to his base salary, not including benefits.

Zhang isn't the only worker at BART who has taken advantage of overtime to boost his take-home pay. Three other "system service workers" with the same title as Zhang are pulling in more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in the BART system, and many more workers made six-figure salaries while still having a base salary close Zhang's.

"Where do I sign up?" Lionel Hsu, a BART rider, joked to The Mercury News on Tuesday.

While it is hard to begrudge Zhang's for his paycheck considering the amount of work he put in for it, many see the rampant overtime at BART as a problem symptomatic of inefficient scheduling and wasteful spending practices in a system funded by public taxes.

"I am stunned," Debra Flinker, another BART rider, told The Mercury News after hearing about Zhang's overtime pay. "Actually, I’m appalled." The news comes as voters prepare to make a decision about a ballot measure that would allow BART to borrow $3.5 billion to begin a systems overhaul.

The Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that all workers who receive an hourly wage must be paid at least 1.5 times their normal hourly rate for any hour they work beyond an ordinary 40-hour work week. This currently does not apply to most salaried workers who perform some administrative work and receive at least $455 a week, though a new rule may increase that pay threshold to $913 a week on December 1. However, opposition from Senate Republicans may ultimately delay that change.

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The new federal rule would not effect Zhang, as he is already eligible for overtime, but a public push to cut down overtime opportunities at BART could eventually reduce his impressive salary considerably. But until then, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost says people shouldn't blame him for using the system to his advantage, saying that he worked nearly every day in 2015 to earn the money.

"He is signing up for time that is also available to others – if he doesn't take them, someone else will," she told The Mercury News. "Station cleanliness is a priority for us."