Long Island Rail Road union leaders are raising new concerns about the MTA’s push to install biometric time clocks at employee facilities to help curb overtime abuse, arguing that the technology could drive up overtime costs if some workers have to travel out of their way to use them.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority already has installed about 1,600 new devices, including 430 at LIRR employee facilities. Many of the clocks are already in use, and the MTA expects that, by the end of this month, 95 percent of its 72,000 employees will have access to the clocks, which require workers to scan a fingers to record when they arrive and leave work. The MTA is paying tech firm Kronos Inc., of Lowell, Massachusetts, about $37 million to provide the devices and consulting support.
The technology aims to address potential overtime fraud among some workers by ensuring that employees are working when they are supposed to be. The effort comes as the MTA and other law enforcement agencies continue to investigate excessive overtime reported among some workers, including at the LIRR.
But some LIRR labor officials, who reject accusations of widespread overtime abuse, said the MTA has rushed the effort to modernize its attendance system without input from the unions. Labor leaders said the MTA also has not considered the reality that hundreds of railroad employees — including track and signal workers — routinely begin and end their work days at assigned job sites, including when deployed to make emergency repairs. In such cases, workers now typically sign in on a time sheet or report to a supervisor to record their attendance.
Scanning in and out of the new system, union officials said, could result in additional overtime, or reduced productivity, if workers have to travel for miles to get to the time clocks at employee facilities throughout New York City and Long Island. Anthony Simon, head of the LIRR’s largest union, said the issues could have been avoided if the MTA “had thought this out properly instead of reacting to the alleged abuse” of overtime by some workers.
“Our organization has tried to communicate that there will certainly be major challenges in productivity with a time and attendance system that requires workers to report and leave from assigned, designated locations with no flexibility to get where the work is and back at the end of the day or night,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “Our workers are always prepared, and often asked, to report directly to worksites to optimize the windows of time to get work done.”
MTA spokesman Tim Minton, in a statement, said the authority is “working with all of our labor partners to ensure that our updated policies and procedures do not affect our labor agreements.
"We have spoken with all of our labor partners on this new initiative and continue to work with them to make sure we build out effective policies and procedures," Minton said.
While not specifically addressing how it intends to address the issues, project officials — in a July report presented to the MTA Board — said the authority is working with outside management consultants AlixPartners and Guidehouse to figure out the logistics of implementing the plan, including by reviewing “attendance-related requirements” in collective bargaining agreements, “as well as policies and procedures across agencies.”
The report noted the initiative has faced a “lack of participation from represented employee groups.” The MTA's inspector general recently investigated what she's called the "apparent sabotage" of one of the new devices at an LIRR employee facility in Jamaica.
Another potential hitch in the plan is an LIRR union work rule restricting employees from beginning or ending their shifts at an employee facility other than “the headquarters where the employee is entitled to report” — meaning workers could not simply be sent to the nearest facility equipped with a biometric time clock without incurring a penalty payment.
MTA Board member Lawrence Schwartz, who was the first to push for the expanded use of biometric clocks to curb potential overtime abuse, said he expects any logistical issues with the deployment of the clocks to be addressed, and suggested the agency should look into “portable biometric clocks” that could be used at job sites. Minton confirmed the MTA is "exploring mobile solutions."
“If there’s an actual, valid concern or issue, then we should figure out a way to address it. I have not been told or heard that this is a real problem — a big problem,” said Schwartz, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “The bottom line is this is 2019 … We live in an age of modern technology. We need to use the best modern technology when it comes to maintaining the highest level of accountability at the MTA … MTA management has lived in the Dark Ages for way too long.”
The biometric time clocks have been a source of tension since the MTA in May announced its plan to roll them out. The initiative followed an April financial report from the Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed alarmingly high overtime rates among some MTA employees, including former LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo, who made $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499.
The MTA also announced in May that five LIRR workers were facing disciplinary sanctions for overtime abuse. Separately, the MTA's inspector general's office in July said it had found that former LIRR foreman Raymond Murphy, who earned $280,950 in 2018, cheated on some of his pay by claiming he was working when he was at or near his East Northport home.
The MTA has said the biometric clocks would create a uniform timekeeping system across all agencies, and establish that employees are working when they are supposed to be, including by eliminating the potential for “buddy punching,” wherein one worker records the attendance of another.
Changes in attendance reporting protocols could come up as part of the MTA’s collective bargaining with its LIRR unions, whose contracts came up for renewal in April.
Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, said other logistical issues are sure to surface with the new system. He said that some workers routinely show up at job sites in their own vehicles, but if required to start their day at headquarters, would need transportation to and from job sites.
“There are not enough vehicles for the employees … They’re going to have to wait for a truck,” Natale said. “I can’t make heads or tails of it, because there’s no logic involved. This was a knee-jerk reaction by the MTA to a couple guys that got in trouble. ‘Let’s just spend millions on biometrics and not think about how we’re going to implement it.’ ”