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Union general chairman blames LIRR president for driving up overtime

Anthony Simon, the union's general chairman, in Mineola

Anthony Simon, the union's general chairman, in Mineola on March 28, 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road’s top union official is placing the blame for the MTA’s rising overtime costs on the LIRR’s president, accusing him of knowingly driving up OT in order to advance major service improvement initiatives on the subways and the railroad.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents about half of the LIRR's laborers, said Monday that LIRR president Phillip Eng should shoulder more responsibility than anyone for the MTA’s overtime costs rising by nearly 80 percent since 2016.

Simon noted that, as acting president of New York City Transit in 2017, Eng signed off on an internal memo proposing the lifting of an overtime cap on subway workers in order to “ensure staff availability during this time of peak workload demands across the system” due to the MTA’s Subway Action Plan. The plan sought to increase subway maintenance efforts to reduce service delays. Working with the Transport Workers Union, the MTA successfully lifted the overtime cap.

Months later, as the incoming president of the Long Island Rail Road, Eng launched his “LIRR Forward Initiative,” which similarly dedicated more resources, including manpower, to reverse failing service. LIRR overtime costs reached $162 million in 2018 — 8 percent more than in 2017.

“Phil Eng is the problem . . . There’s nobody else to blame,” Simon said. “It’s time Phil Eng takes the responsibility . . . Phil Eng wanted the overtime. He pushed it.”

Eng would not comment on Simon's remarks Monday.

The clash over overtime at the nation's largest public transportation provider follows the release of a report by the nonprofit Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed alarmingly high overtime rates among some MTA employees. The authority's top earner in 2018, LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo, made $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499.

The report led to MTA chairman Patrick Foye calling for three separate probes into overtime costs — by the MTA, its inspector general, and an outside investigator. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday also backed an independent investigation of the “fraud and theft and criminality” involved in the MTA’s high overtime costs.

The heightened focus by the MTA and Cuomo on overtime costs also comes as the authority prepares to enter into negotiations with its unions this year.

Foye also revealed Friday that five LIRR employees face disciplinary sanctions for recent overtime abuses. He said the issue is not legitimate overtime, but rather “overtime fraud and abuse.”

“Legitimate overtime is legal,” Foye said. “Fraud isn’t, and attempts to confuse the two won’t work.”

Simon said Monday that, while he did not condone “any bad behavior,” he believed it was Eng who should be “held accountable.”

“If you’re looking to fire my employees, then you should fire the president, because he allowed this to happen,” Simon said. “He knew this was happening.”

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents MTA bus and subway workers, agreed that the rising overtime costs at New York City Transit were due in part to the lifting of the overtime cap — a cap his union put in place to ensure its members “wouldn’t be worked to death.”

But Samuelsen disagreed that Eng shouldered any particular blame, and said — as the MTA’s chief financial officer has — the increased overtime is the necessary cost of bringing the system “into a better state of reliability.”

“I don’t particularly like the guy,” Samuelsen said of Eng. “But it’s not his fault.”

Samuelsen also said he heard “anecdotally” that some MTA laborers, responding to the accusations of fraud in their ranks, refused to work overtime this past weekend. MTA officials did not address whether there were any refusals.

Asked if he was aware of any such job action over the weekend, Simon said his union’s members “worked and continue to work.”

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