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MTA: OT report shows abuse of public trust; union counters it vindicates workers

MTA chairman Patrick Foye on Friday discussed the findings of a report on the agency's high overtime rates. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo)

MTA board members representing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday that an overtime report commissioned by the agency depicted an abuse of public trust, while labor leaders countered it vindicated workers who have been wrongfully accused of fraud.

The conflicting views came at a specially scheduled meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, where special counsel Carrie Cohen presented the findings of a two-month review she conducted into the MTA’s overtime costs, and offered recommendations on how to reduce them.

Cohen noted her report did not draw conclusions about potential overtime fraud, in part because it did not investigate specific individuals — leaving that to law enforcement agencies — and because the authority lacked the management tools to determine what overtime is legitimate and what is not.

“The MTA’s controls and timekeeping metrics are weak, and the MTA is not able to determine why overtime payments have increased so rapidly, and whether there is a widespread problem with fraud, waste and abuse,” said Cohen, who noted that holes in the agency’s oversight of overtime leave the agency “extremely vulnerable” to cheats.

The report found that arcane, paper-based record-keeping systems, restrictive union work rules that entitle employees to extra pay for little or no extra work, and MTA management’s repeated disregard of years of warnings from auditors and watchdogs have resulted in some workers earning as much as four times their base salaries.

The MTA spent $1.3 billion on overtime last year, according to the report. Its operating budget was about $16.6 billion.

New York State superintendent of financial services Linda Lacewell, who was appointed recently by Cuomo to the MTA board, said Cohen’s report “paints a very ugly picture” of overtime use at the MTA, and of a “gross abuse of trust — the public trust.”

“It’s an embarrassment,” Lacewell said. “And now it’s at the feet of this board to make sure that something is actually done about it.”

MTA board member John Samuelsen — international president of the Transport Workers Union — said he saw the report as vindication for unions, because it made clear some of the key drivers of recent overtime have been heavy workloads and work rules, resulting in the extra pay not being "fraudulent." The report also recommended that the MTA examine whether its hiring freeze is driving up overtime — a theory repeatedly raised by unions.

“There’s no evidence here at all that inappropriate overtime was given out — certainly not pervasively. The entire report says the opposite, if you look at it in totality,” Samuelsen said. “ . . . The system fell into a state of disrepair, the MTA didn’t want to hire the staff, and when you don’t hire staff and you want to get the system back into a state of good repair, you have to pay overtime.”

The increased scrutiny of overtime at the MTA follows an April report from the Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed a large number of MTA employees earning high amounts of overtime, including the agency’s top earner, former LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo. He made $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499 in 2018, according to the Empire Center.

The Empire Center report led several agencies, including the MTA inspector general, the Queens district attorney and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, to look into potential overtime fraud.

Much of the backlash from the unions has targeted another Cuomo appointee to the board, Lawrence Schwartz, who was the first to call on the MTA to hire a special counsel to investigate overtime. On Friday, he defended his decision.

“What I called for is to get to the bottom of this thing — to find out and figure out what’s really going on when it comes to overtime,” Schwartz said. “I hope there is no widespread problem of fraud, waste and abuse. I hope there’s a tiny problem, if it’s a problem at all.”

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, the Long Island Rail Road's largest union, called the report a "slap in face to all the hardworking men and women" at the railroad.

"Labor is getting tired of being the scapegoats for mismanagement," Simon said. "If they don’t want us to work overtime, stop calling us."

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