Four Long Island Rail Road workers who ranked among the highest earners in the MTA last year padded their overtime pay by claiming more than $140,000 in “excessive and unsubstantiated” travel time for driving to and from assignments, according to the MTA’s inspector general.
The four, foremen in the track and structures division of the railroad’s engineering department, made $650,836 in total overtime last year, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny stated in a letter dated Sept. 26 to LIRR president Phillip Eng.
The foremen received an estimated $146,800 combined in “questionable travel time payments” for 2018, highlighting a broader problem of inadequate management oversight, unreliable documentation of employee time and attendance, and lax supervision, according to Pokorny's letter.
“We conclude that this has been a very costly and wasteful practice, brought about by years of managerial neglect that allowed a small group of workers to take advantage at taxpayer expense," Pokorny wrote in the letter.
Eng, in a statement Wednesday responding to Pokorny's letter, said the railroad “takes very seriously any confirmed abuses” and will seek to recover money that was not properly earned by the accused workers.
Only one of the four was identified by Pokorny — Raymond Murphy, 65, who retired last year and was accused in a separate inspector general's investigation about cheating the railroad by claiming he was working when he was at or near his East Northport home. He made $280,950 in 2018.
The revelations come as several agencies, including federal and Queens prosecutors, continue to investigate potential overtime abuse among LIRR workers. The concerns of fraud stem from an April report by the Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed alarmingly high overtime rates among some workers. The MTA paid $418 million in overtime in 2018, up 16% from the previous year.
The four foremen's earnings placed them among the 100 highest-paid employees at the MTA, despite travel time payments not being built into their contracts, according to the letter. Of the top 100 earners, 26 worked in the LIRR's engineering department, with each taking home an average of more than $300,000, including overtime, according to the letter.
The longtime practice of claiming an extra hour’s pay for the time it takes to travel to an assignment, and another hour for traveling back home, was part of a “handshake agreement,” and was paid “regardless of the distance a given worker” traveled to and from a job site, according to the letter. Pokorny said some workers claimed more than an hour’s travel time each way in order to push their total hours worked beyond 16 — the threshold needed to earn double time.
According to Pokorny, upon her office's recommendation, the railroad suspended paying time-traveled payments in January, but resumed them the following month "when union officials claimed such payments represented a 'past practice' and therefore must be continued."
In a statement, Anthony Simon, who heads the union that represents the LIRR’s structure division workers, said his organization never objected to improved practices, and suggested management should have worked more closely with labor in doing so. He called Pokorny’s findings “just more of the same evidence that management is at fault for not providing the oversight and guidance needed in the field to document the work being performed."
“Management is not out there to see first hand the tremendous workload that is landing on the foremen to get the work done and to support the third-party work,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “Upper management puts tremendous pressure on our workers to deliver at all costs to achieve the goals of an aggressive expansion plan.”
In his statement, Eng said the railroad is reviewing its past travel time payment procedures to make sure, going forward, payments are appropriate. And, Eng said, the railroad has put in place biometric time clocks and new management controls “to ensure overtime is assigned only when necessary and is monitored and approved by supervisors.”
"The LIRR is focused on protecting the public’s money, and is implementing discipline where warranted and timely, given outside ongoing investigations with which we are fully cooperating,” Eng said. “We are determined to recover pay that was received without being earned by a small number of employees, and have already reclaimed funds in certain cases.”
MTA OVERTIME NUMBERS
Of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's top 100 earners in 2018, more than 20 worked in the Long Island Rail Road's engineering department, according to MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny. Some of Pokorny's findings:
- 26: Number of LIRR track and structures division employees included among the 100 top earners at the MTA in 2018.
- $99,008: Average salary of those 26 workers.
- Over $300,000: Average total pay for those 26 workers, including overtime.
- $146,800: Amount of total “questionable” travel time pay earned by four track and structure division foremen.
- $650,836: Amount of total overtime pay earned by the four track and structure division foremen.
SOURCE: MTA Inspector General's office