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Unions push back on OT accusations as 5 LIRR employees sanctioned for 'abuse'

A westbound bi-level Long Island Rail Road commuter

A westbound bi-level Long Island Rail Road commuter train pulled by diesel locomotives enters the Oakdale LIRR station on Aug. 5, 2015. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's labor force is fighting back against accusations from the agency's leadership about workers improperly collecting overtime pay — even as the MTA's chairman revealed Friday that five LIRR employees face sanctions for overtime abuse. 

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye said the five workers either already have been disciplined or will be sanctioned for the overtime abuses. Foye said the sanctions, which he would not specify, have resulted in two of the workers deciding to "accelerate" their retirements.

The developments came as the board held an "emergency meeting" Friday to discuss the growing controversy about alarmingly high overtime rates. At the meeting, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's representative on the MTA Board, Lawrence Schwartz, called for the hiring of a former prosecutor to investigate what he called "constant" overtime abuse among MTA workers.

Foye later said he supported the proposal, adding that the agency owes "taxpayers and our customers an explanation of how some have abused the system and ensure it never happens again."

Meanwhile Friday, news surfaced that some Long Island Rail Road workers plan to refuse overtime this weekend in an organized protest against the agency's recent handling of the controversy. 

Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians, said he's become aware of the organized overtime refusal, but said he's directed his members not to participate in it.

"What is going on is not right," Sanchez said. "My members have been approached because others organizations are not happy and decided to take a course of action that does not affect us. I've told my members not to be part of it."

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union — the MTA's largest union — while coming up short of condoning an organized work action, said at the meeting that he wouldn't be surprised if the accusations "organically" resulted in a dip in productivity. He called the allegations of overtime fraud unfounded and "genuinely stupid."

"This is the type of behavior that triggers strikes," said Samuelsen, a nonvoting member of the MTA Board who noted that the overtime dust-up comes as the MTA prepares to enter contract negotiations with most of its unions.

"These are all management choices," Samuelsen said. "If you don't want us to work overtime, don't assign it. And see how quickly the system falls into a state of disrepair." 

Despite Schwartz's claim of "constant" overtime abuse, Foye said he believes only a "small fraction" of the overtime paid by the MTA is fraudulent, and that he supports overtime as a necessary means of keeping the transit system running. Other MTA officials, including the agency's chief financial officer, Robert Foran, and subways chief Andy Byford, also defended the agency's overtime as largely legitimate. 

The heightened focus on overtime costs 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 Foye to order separate investigations by the MTA and by its inspector general into excessive overtime, as well as a review of time and attendance reporting procedures at employee facilities that included monitoring by armed MTA Police officers. 

Foye confirmed Friday at the meeting that he has pulled the cops from the assignment, but not before further drawing the ire of the unions. 

"This board has to be really careful about the message they send to the MTA workforce," Vincent Tessitore Jr., the LIRR labor representative on the MTA Board, said at Friday's meeting. He noted that the rising overtime costs at the MTA — up 15 percent in 2018 from the prior year — come as the agency takes on major efforts to reverse failing service, including through railroad president Phillip Eng's "LIRR Forward" initiative.

"They beg people to stay overnight," Tessitore Jr. said. "They need them there, because they're qualified on the various equipment. Do you think they always want to stay? No . . . You've got to stay."

Foye conceded that the high overtime rates are "largely a reflection on the MTA, and not on the hardworking men and women who keep the region moving." But he agreed that more had to be done to control excessive overtime, which he said could compromise worker safety. 

Foye noted that the NTSB is investigating the June 2017 death of LIRR maintenance-of-way foreman Michael Ollek, who was struck by a train while walking the tracks in Queens Village. Foye said Ollek had worked excessive overtime in the days leading up to the accident and was 11 hours into a 24-hour shift.

"I do believe. . . that someone who has worked hundreds of hours in a week, and has apparently frequently done so, should not be driving their personal car home, let alone operating or working around heavy railroad equipment," Foye said. 

Foye said he is looking for ways to limit the number of consecutive hours all MTA laborers can work — in line with existing caps for some jobs, including locomotive engineers —  that are written into federal law. If necessary, Foye said he will take unilateral action to force the changes.

But Norman Brown, the Metro-North labor representative on the board, said the proper way to address overtime regulations is through collective bargaining. 

"How do you get out of it? You negotiate it — the same way you got into it," Brown said 

Eng said he takes "full responsibility" for giving LIRR managers direction on overtime use. He said that some overtime is incurred because maintenance work is assigned during overnight and weekend hours to avoid impacting service. He said he is looking at ways to get more work done during normal work hours. 

Another new directive by Foye is the installation of state-of-the-art biometric attendance recorders at all employee facilities to replace disparate systems that could include having workers sign in on paper forms or report their attendance by phone. 

Samuelsen predicted that installing the new technology at more than 1,500 employee facilities would be a major financial drain on the agency and could defeat its own purpose. 

"We're going to get overtime to maintain the biometric devices in a state of good repair," Samuelsen said. "We've seen this movie before."

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