The Long Island Rail Road offered some of its union workers overtime pay in place of them taking state-permitted time off to vote in Tuesday’s elections, according to a letter obtained by Newsday.
In the letter sent Monday to railroad union leaders and posted at employee facilities, LIRR president Phillip Eng offered employees who requested time off to vote in Tuesday’s primary elections “the opportunity to withdraw that request." Instead, employees would "receive in addition to their regular pay for their regular shift on June 25, 2019, a premium payment equal to three (3) hours at 1½ times pay,” the letter stated.
A state law that passed in April as part of a group of voting reforms grants New Yorkers three hours of paid time off to go vote.
Maxwell Young, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR's parent agency — said in a statement the MTA's priority was staffing and "ensuring safe and reliable service for our customers."
"In order to make sure there were enough staff on hand to operate the trains and the system, we offered incentives for a limited number of employees and, if they choose to vote, they can do so before or after work as in previous years," Young said. "We succeeded, and as a result service [Tuesday] was uninterrupted."
The LIRR did not say Tuesday how many employees accepted the offer. Polls were open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Eng said in the letter that the decision to take the offer would “be entirely voluntarily by the employee, and is not intended in any way to preclude any person from voting.” He added that no employees would be required to withdraw their request, nor be directed to work during the requested time off if they don't withdraw their request, nor be "negatively impacted" if they don't withdraw their request.
The letter comes as LIRR laborers have been under scrutiny for what some MTA leaders have said is “abuse” of overtime. The accusations, stemming from an Empire Center for Public Policy report in April on MTA finances, have resulted in multiple investigations into overtime spending at the railroad, including by the MTA’s Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Queens District Attorney, which was one of the offices holding a special election Tuesday.
LIRR labor leaders have disputed the allegations, and have said the railroad’s high overtime rates are due to LIRR management relying heavily on OT to keep the commuter rail system — the most heavily used in the United States — operating.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — the LIRR’s largest union — said LIRR management’s offer to workers came in a “late notification” and was the result of the railroad being “unprepared to address staffing issues.”
“Let me be perfectly clear and say the SMART Organization did not request or enter into any agreement for these payments,” Simon said. “SMART members, as well as all LIRR employees, are stepping up as we always do to prevent any inconvenience to our 300,0000-plus ridership, and we will continue to do so.”
Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians, defended Eng, who he said was in a “no-win situation.”
“Contractually, he had no good option and made the only call he could to ensure proper staffing to provide service for the riding public,” said Sanchez, who noted that his union also did not request nor enter into an agreement for the extra pay.
Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport), who supported the new law, called LIRR management’s offer to unions “just wrong.”
“The whole purpose of this law is to encourage people to vote, and this letter seems to be discouraging people to vote,” Gaughran said. “It’s the exact opposite of what this law and the governor intended to do.”
Susan Lerner, executive director for Common Cause New York, a voter advocacy group, called Eng’s letter “a jaw-dropper.”
“The idea that the MTA would offer a cash incentive to its employees not to vote is outrageous. As if we don’t have low enough turnout for elections already,” said Lerner, who added the railroad should have prepared better for the election. “This is a big organization with a lot of scheduling capability. You keep track of who asked to take off, and you cover the shifts.”
Young, the MTA spokesman, said Lerner's assertion was "absurd and the exact opposite of what we did, which was to encourage all of our employees to take advantage of the ample voting hours before and after shifts so we could avoid train cancellations and get hundreds of thousands of LIRR customers to school, work and the polls."