The Long Island Rail Road and its unions have made a deal to keep employees working throughout Election Day — avoiding a prior scramble when management offered overtime to keep workers from voting during their shifts.
The amicable settlement marks a change of tone in the strained relationship between the railroad and its labor leaders. Union officials have complained, as the next contract talks loom, that the workforce has been overworked and underappreciated.
In June, the railroad appeared to be caught off guard by a new state law that grants New Yorkers three hours of paid time off to vote. A day before primary elections were held in several counties, LIRR President Phillip Eng reached out to workers offering three hours at time-and-a-half in exchange for their withdrawal of requests to take time off to vote during their regular shifts.
The arrangement led to accusations from voting rights advocates that the LIRR was incentivizing its employees not to vote. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent company — said the offer was aimed at maintaining staffing levels necessary to run regular service.
Ahead of Tuesday’s election, MTA managers met Anthony Simon — general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the LIRR’s largest union — and reached an agreement. Railroad workers will be paid four extra hours of straight time Tuesday to vote outside their work hours — including by taking advantage of early voting opportunities.
“It was just at a point that if everybody took those three hours that they were legally required to take, it could have disrupted service. And we weren’t going to let that happen,” said Simon, who hopes the cooperation leading to the deal will carry over to future negotiations. “The unions are willing to work with them, but we’ve got to be treated fairly and respectfully … because it is us that keep the trains moving. And we’re not looking to hurt the commuters.”
In a statement, MTA spokesman Tim Minton said the authority is “very pleased that our Long Island Rail Road unions are working collaboratively to ensure full service for LIRR riders on Election Day, while taking advantage of this historic opportunity to vote before Tuesday."
The agreement at the LIRR comes as the MTA has been under intense fire from its largest union, the Transport Workers Union, for what its members say are unreasonable contract demands, including a wage freeze and higher health care contributions.
The union, which represents 40,000 New York City Transit bus and subway workers, rallied Wednesday outside MTA headquarters, and was joined by LIRR union leaders. Like the TWU, the railroad unions contract came up for renewal in the spring.
Formal negotiations with the LIRR unions have not yet begun, but documents obtained by Newsday show that management is seeking numerous changes to employee wage structures, benefits and work rules. These include the proposed elimination of double-time pay, which some employees accrue after working a certain number of consecutive overtime hours; a restriction against working more than 16 hours in a row; and a provision allowing the railroad to contract out work as it pleases.
The unions are seeking 5% annual raises for the next three years, according to the documents.
The last major LIRR contract dispute brought the nation's largest commuter railroad to the brink of a strike in 2014, before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo brokered an 11th-hour settlement.
Simon, who has criticized LIRR management for leaving its unions out of several recent key decisions, said the Election Day agreement illustrated the importance of "respectful communication."
"If you don't include us, then it's at your own detriment," Simon said. "They included us this time."