Some 175 Metro-North employees racked up $50,000 or more in overtime last year, fueling a six-figure bonanza for track workers, conductors and engineers while the commuter rail sticks riders with the tab for closing its $26 million budget gap by hiking ticket prices.
Sixteen of those employees made more in overtime than they did in salary, with three topping $100,000 in OT, doubling their annual compensation and then some, according to records Newsday obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
In all, 116 of Metro-North's 6,400 employees made $150,000 or more, the records show.
Officials at the commuter rail -- which doled out $73.1 million in overtime last year, or about 14 percent of Metro-North's total payout to workers -- said that despite the high price in paying workers to put in extra hours, the practice actually saves money.
"Overtime saves money because it's cheaper to use judiciously than paying more people full salaries plus fringe," Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.
Last year, track supervisor Anthony Zimbardi raked in the most in overtime, making nearly $114,000 in extra pay, bringing his total salary last year to just shy of $190,000.
And among the biggest overtime winners last year were conductors and engineers, who have been working without a contract. They're in the midst of rancorous contract negotiations with Metro-North management that hit an impasse in January when 1,600 rank-and-file members voted down their own leadership's agreement for 10 percent raises over six years.
Twelve conductors and nine engineers were among the agency's top 100 overtime earners last year.
Heading that group was locomotive engineer Joseph J. Barra, who made $183,000 last year, about $80,000 of that in overtime alone, the records show.
The best-paid conductor was Frank W. Higgins, who made $172,000 last year, nearly $75,000 of that in overtime, according to railroad data. Higgins held the same distinction in 2011, when he made $182,000, with $80,000 coming from overtime, records show.
Aside from Higgins, 11 conductors took in $150,000 or more in total compensation. And some 40 engineers topped the $150,000-a-year mark.
Newsday was unable to reach Zimbardi, Barra and Higgins. The Association of Commuter Rail Employees, the group that represents conductors and engineers and is the largest union in Metro-North, did not return calls for comment.
Metro-North officials argue that they have been working hard to rein in overtime costs, as last year's payment was down about $3.5 million from 2009. And last year's numbers would have been lower if superstorm Sandy hadn't shut down the system for several days, creating $2.8 million in overtime for workers, railroad officials said.
In addition, Metro-North has been undergoing the largest service expansion in its 30-year history, recently adding 187 trains as it tries to take advantage of the railroad's popularity among those who ride the rails on weekends and during off-peak hours.
The railroad has been trying to make hires to fill the additional shifts, hoping to add 84 conductors this year by training recruits in classes of 14 every other month.
"Unfortunately, conductors don't retire in batches of 14 on the same day," Anders said. "So there is some OT associated with vacancies."
Regardless of the reasons the railroad cites, critics say paying out exorbitant amounts of overtime is no way to run an agency.
"Whether or not the numbers have gone up or down, it's still too much overtime," said Tim Hoefer, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research project. "In my head, overtime is a symptom of a management problem. If you can't control your overtime that's an issue."
And in one way or another, the costs trickle down to the rider.
In March, Metro-North raised ticket prices on most of its routes by 8.2-9.3 percent, as each of MTA's subway, rail and bus systems attempts to raise revenue by 7.5 percent. A similar hike is expected in 2015.
The railroad's use of overtime has previously been flagged by the state. A 2011 New York State comptroller's report criticized Metro-North for allowing overtime to balloon by nearly $1 million in its Signal Construction unit.
"These payments occurred because of a pervasive culture of management acceptance of long-term practices, employee feelings of entitlement to additional compensation, and ineffective internal controls in Metro-North's payroll office," the report said.
VETERANS CASHING IN ON OVERTIME
Stephen Alexander is a 25-year veteran of the railroad. Last year, he made $181,000, with $102,000 coming from overtime.
Alexander is the senior supervisor of track and structures at Grand Central Terminal. He oversees masonry, painting, iron work and scaffolding work, Anders said.
His seniority means he's the first person offered holiday, vacation and sick day coverage that doesn't fall on his regular days off -- Friday and Saturday. During superstorm Sandy, he worked around the clock, she said.
Anders relayed a note from Alexander's boss: "He shows up every day and he likes to work."
Metro-North officials said they are bound by entrenched union rules that give senior-level workers dibs on tens of millions of dollars in overtime the agency doles out each year.
"We don't care who gets the OT, as long as the work gets done," Anders said.
And, she added, much of the overtime is fueled by work that gets done on nights, weekends and holidays to avoid interrupting service during heavy ridership times.
"The fact of the matter is that when someone is working overtime, they are working and earning their money, often at night, on weekends and on holidays," she said.
John Margallis made $175,000 as an operations foreman last year, with $101,000 coming from overtime. Margallis is a skilled crane operator assigned to special projects that are done mostly on weekends and at night, when tracks are out of service.
Margallis' boss said he's a hard worker, so good that in November he was asked to train others.