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MTA inspector general: Agency failed to 'properly verify overtime claims'

The MTA Inspector General's office is among several

The MTA Inspector General's office is among several agencies investigating potential overtime fraud at the MTA, including involving Long Island Rail Road workers.  Credit: Newsday File/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

An inadequate system for verifying Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees’ overtime claims has created “an environment where fraud could easily occur undetected,” according to a new report by the MTA’s internal watchdog.

The report by MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny examined 75 of the highest overtime earners for 2018 in four MTA agencies — the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, New York City Transit, and MTA Bus — and found “that MTA management, across the four agencies, lacked the fundamental ability to properly verify overtime claims made” by the high overtime earners.

In the absence of a reliable attendance verification system, the report noted that some managers interviewed in the investigation acknowledged relying “entirely on the honesty of the employees” to accurately report the hours they worked.

“Many approvers of high-earner timesheets cannot rely on their own observations of employee attendance because their subordinates often earn overtime by working at other locations, under other supervisors — or in certain cases, under no supervision at all,” Pokorny wrote.

The report made several recommendations to the MTA, including that overtime approvers be provided with the necessary information to verify overtime claims, and that, each month, the MTA make a list of “high rollers” — employees with excessive daily work hours over several consecutive days — and share it with all levels of management. The MTA said it agreed with the recommendations, and is in the process of implementing them.

In a statement, MTA spokesman Tim Minton noted that Pokorny's report came in response to a call from MTA chairman Patrick Foye for the inspector general to "assist in identifying and taking all steps possible to reduce expenditures of public funds." Minton said Foye believes Pokorny's findings are important in managing overtime going forward.

“The MTA Overtime Task Force is reviewing process and accountability across all agencies to ensure that employees are appropriately assigned overtime, and paid for hours actually worked," Minton said.

The MTA inspector general’s office is among several agencies, including federal and Queens prosecutors, to have launched a probe into potential fraud at the transit agency following 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.

Pokorny singled out the LIRR for “a particularly troubling example of poor controls over time and attendance.” She described the case of a manager who worked days and was approving overtime claims for shifts worked during overnight hours.

“The approver could never have verified their time, even if he had tried,” Pokorny wrote. “During those night shifts, the subordinates were without supervision from any LIRR personnel, and — other than the labor sheets the employees completed themselves — no records existed to allow the approver to verify that the employees were present at the job sites for any or all of the shifts.”

Pokorny’s report found that nearly three-quarters of the workers included in the review worked for departments that, in 2018, did not use any kind of time clock system to monitor employee time attendance — instead relying on handwritten forms.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents about half of the LIRR's laborers, said Pokorny's findings show that, rather than investigating union workers for fraud, more effort should be put on looking into "the millions spent on missing management."

"MTA IG Pokorny is continuing to identify that MTA Management lacks the fundamental ability to manage overtime, which unfairly paints a picture that workers are dishonest," Simon said in a statement. "Not only are managers not out in the field off hours to 'verify overtime claims,' they are not out in the field to support our workforce. Labor is tired of getting the brunt of negative scrutiny, when time and time again these investigations lead to poor management."

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union — the MTA’s largest labor organization — similarly said Pokorny’s report supports labor leaders’ position that overtime issues are a result of “administrative shortcomings.”

“We just want to go to work every day and support our families. And if you give us overtime, we work it,” said Samuelsen, who pointed out that his workers’ overtime hours are verified by the fact that the assigned work gets done. “A rail job is completed. A bus or train operator is behind the wheel. . . . A lot of it is self-evident.”

Earlier this week, Pokorny separately raised concerns about “excessive and unsubstantiated” travel time paid to four LIRR track and structure division foremen. LIRR president Phillip Eng, responding to that report, said the railroad “takes very seriously any confirmed abuses” and will seek to recover money that was not properly earned.

Eng said the railroad has taken steps to curb potential overtime abuse, including by installing biometric time clocks at employee facilities and putting in new management controls to ensure overtime is monitored and approved by supervisors.

“I acknowledge the value of the OIG’s work, as well as a similar review by the United States attorney,” Eng said. “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.”

Simon said Eng could best protect public funds "by seeking to recover money that was not properly earned from management failing to do their jobs."

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