MTA overtime reached a record high in 2023. Newsday's Alfonso Castillo reports.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The MTA spent $1.42 billion on overtime last year, surpassing the 2018 record that resulted in investigations, indictments and promises of spending reforms, records show.

And although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent $80 million more in overtime wages in 2023 than the prior year, Janno Lieber, the agency’s chairman and CEO, said MTA officials “remain as committed as ever to reining in overtime.”

The MTA attributed much of the increased costs to job vacancies.

According to an overtime report recently published by the MTA Board’s finance committee, the transit authority spent $1,420,300,000 in overtime wages in 2023, $305.4 million over budget and 6% more than the $1.34 billion spent in overtime in 2022.

The amount is also about 3% above its record $1.38 billion in overtime in 2018. The record-setting figures that year led to multiple fraud investigations by law enforcement authorities, and to five former MTA employees — four of them from the LIRR — being convicted on various charges relating to them lying about their work hours.

The MTA's highest overtime earner in 2018, LIRR track inspector Thomas Caputo, was sentenced to 8 months in federal prison after admitting he lied about working 3,864 hours of overtime that year. Caputo, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud, was the MTA's highest-paid employee in 2018, earning $344,000 in overtime on top of his $117,000 salary.

Facing intense scrutiny about the costs, MTA officials adopted several reforms, including the installation of a $37 million biometric time clock system that required workers to scan their fingers to document their location and hours worked. The finger-scanning function was suspended months later because of COVID-19 concerns and has not resumed.

After the MTA implemented reforms in 2019, overtime costs fell over the next two years — to $1.24 billion in 2019 and $1.13 billion in 2020 — before ticking up in 2021 to $1.16 billion. The surge in overtime to $1.34 billion in 2022 led the MTA to say it would "continue to look for ways to control overtime — especially when it goes to a few high earners.”

The latest MTA overtime report does not disclose the individual earnings of employees but attributed much of the increase to “higher vacancy/absentee coverage” in the New York City Transit bus and subway system, which exceeded its overtime budget by $29 million.

“We remain as committed as ever to reining in overtime. One of the main ways we do it is to hire,” Lieber told Newsday following an MTA Board meeting Wednesday. “All over the country, transit is having a personnel hiring challenge. We’re doing better than most of the world, but it’s still an issue.”

MTA financial documents published last week show that the authority is currently operating with 3,182 unfilled positions. The MTA employs 70,556 employees as of last month, up from 68,447 in February 2022. The MTA's budgeted payroll for 2024 is about $6.3 billion, up from $5.9 billion budgeted in 2023.

The LIRR spent $218 million on overtime last year, about $17 million more than in 2022, but below its $221 million budget. Lieber noted the opening of Grand Central Madison last year also "challenged us in terms of staffing."

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers  — the LIRR's largest union — called overtime "a crucial and planned-for necessity" on the LIRR, and a key reason why many major railroad projects, like the $2.5 billion Third Track through Nassau County, "are delivered on time and on-budget."

"With headcount always below what is required, management relies on our members to work extra hours and work their normal days off to fulfill their needs," Simon said. "When they call us and tell us they need us, we go to work."

Metro-North spent $134 million on overtime, down from $141 million in 2022, but over budget by $9 million. The MTA attributed part of those costs to major weather events, including an October mudslide that required workers to rebuild a portion of the Hudson Line in Westchester County.

The record overtime numbers come as the MTA and the State Legislature repeatedly have turned to the public to help address fiscal problems that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated ridership. That includes a $1.3 billion state rescue of the MTA last year that raised payroll taxes in New York City; a 4% increase on fares and 6% increase on tolls last summer; and the congestion pricing plan, approved last week, that will charge most vehicles another $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan.

The MTA also received $15 billion in federal COVID relief. Ken Girardin, director of research at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, said all the government bailouts have lessened the urgency for the MTA to "get its operational house in order," including by prioritizing changes to overtime work rules during union negotiations.

"The MTA's operational finances are, essentially, Scotch-taped together for the moment, partially by assumptions that the overtime picture is going to improve," said Girardin, whose organization exposed the 2018 record overtime numbers. "This is just another piece of tape getting ready to bust."

MTA officials have said they have made meaningful changes to bring down operating costs, including through more than $400 million in internal cost-cutting annually. Adjusted for inflation, the MTA's $19.3 billion 2024 operating budget is lower than it was five years earlier, even as the agency increased service on the LIRR by 40% last year, Lieber has said.

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents MTA bus and subway workers, said the fact that overtime has continued to rise despite the MTA's reforms disproves as "an absolute lie"  the notion worker fraud was behind the high costs.

Substantially reducing overtime, Samuelsen said, "will take massive, massive hiring" that MTA officials have determined is not in their financial interest.

"It’s cheaper for them to pay the overtime instead of hiring headcount and taking on new pension costs and health benefit costs,” Samuelsen said. “They obviously keep assessing that to be true, because they continue to do it.”

The MTA spent $1.42 billion on overtime last year, surpassing the 2018 record that resulted in investigations, indictments and promises of spending reforms, records show.

And although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent $80 million more in overtime wages in 2023 than the prior year, Janno Lieber, the agency’s chairman and CEO, said MTA officials “remain as committed as ever to reining in overtime.”

The MTA attributed much of the increased costs to job vacancies.

According to an overtime report recently published by the MTA Board’s finance committee, the transit authority spent $1,420,300,000 in overtime wages in 2023, $305.4 million over budget and 6% more than the $1.34 billion spent in overtime in 2022.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The MTA's $1.42 billion overtime bill in 2023 was its highest ever, beating the 2018 record of $1.38 billion, which triggered criminal investigations, convictions and several spending reforms. 
  • The MTA attributed the $305.4 million overtime budget overrun to a several factors, including job vacancies, weather events and the opening of Grand Central Madison.
  • The MTA's chief said the transit authority remains committed to reining in overtime spending, but union officials said the costs are necessary to complete required work with insufficient staffing.

The amount is also about 3% above its record $1.38 billion in overtime in 2018. The record-setting figures that year led to multiple fraud investigations by law enforcement authorities, and to five former MTA employees — four of them from the LIRR — being convicted on various charges relating to them lying about their work hours.

The MTA's highest overtime earner in 2018, LIRR track inspector Thomas Caputo, was sentenced to 8 months in federal prison after admitting he lied about working 3,864 hours of overtime that year. Caputo, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud, was the MTA's highest-paid employee in 2018, earning $344,000 in overtime on top of his $117,000 salary.

Facing intense scrutiny about the costs, MTA officials adopted several reforms, including the installation of a $37 million biometric time clock system that required workers to scan their fingers to document their location and hours worked. The finger-scanning function was suspended months later because of COVID-19 concerns and has not resumed.

OT costs fell after reforms

After the MTA implemented reforms in 2019, overtime costs fell over the next two years — to $1.24 billion in 2019 and $1.13 billion in 2020 — before ticking up in 2021 to $1.16 billion. The surge in overtime to $1.34 billion in 2022 led the MTA to say it would "continue to look for ways to control overtime — especially when it goes to a few high earners.”

The latest MTA overtime report does not disclose the individual earnings of employees but attributed much of the increase to “higher vacancy/absentee coverage” in the New York City Transit bus and subway system, which exceeded its overtime budget by $29 million.

“We remain as committed as ever to reining in overtime. One of the main ways we do it is to hire,” Lieber told Newsday following an MTA Board meeting Wednesday. “All over the country, transit is having a personnel hiring challenge. We’re doing better than most of the world, but it’s still an issue.”

Grand Central Madison in January of last year. MTA chief Janno...

Grand Central Madison in January of last year. MTA chief Janno Lieber noted that its opening "challenged us in terms of staffing." Credit: Craig Ruttle

MTA financial documents published last week show that the authority is currently operating with 3,182 unfilled positions. The MTA employs 70,556 employees as of last month, up from 68,447 in February 2022. The MTA's budgeted payroll for 2024 is about $6.3 billion, up from $5.9 billion budgeted in 2023.

The LIRR spent $218 million on overtime last year, about $17 million more than in 2022, but below its $221 million budget. Lieber noted the opening of Grand Central Madison last year also "challenged us in terms of staffing."

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers  — the LIRR's largest union — called overtime "a crucial and planned-for necessity" on the LIRR, and a key reason why many major railroad projects, like the $2.5 billion Third Track through Nassau County, "are delivered on time and on-budget."

"With headcount always below what is required, management relies on our members to work extra hours and work their normal days off to fulfill their needs," Simon said. "When they call us and tell us they need us, we go to work."

Metro-North spent $134 million on overtime, down from $141 million in 2022, but over budget by $9 million. The MTA attributed part of those costs to major weather events, including an October mudslide that required workers to rebuild a portion of the Hudson Line in Westchester County.

New high in wake of fare, toll hikes

The record overtime numbers come as the MTA and the State Legislature repeatedly have turned to the public to help address fiscal problems that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated ridership. That includes a $1.3 billion state rescue of the MTA last year that raised payroll taxes in New York City; a 4% increase on fares and 6% increase on tolls last summer; and the congestion pricing plan, approved last week, that will charge most vehicles another $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan.

A masked MTA employee in a subway car in April...

A masked MTA employee in a subway car in April 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

The MTA also received $15 billion in federal COVID relief. Ken Girardin, director of research at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, said all the government bailouts have lessened the urgency for the MTA to "get its operational house in order," including by prioritizing changes to overtime work rules during union negotiations.

"The MTA's operational finances are, essentially, Scotch-taped together for the moment, partially by assumptions that the overtime picture is going to improve," said Girardin, whose organization exposed the 2018 record overtime numbers. "This is just another piece of tape getting ready to bust."

MTA officials have said they have made meaningful changes to bring down operating costs, including through more than $400 million in internal cost-cutting annually. Adjusted for inflation, the MTA's $19.3 billion 2024 operating budget is lower than it was five years earlier, even as the agency increased service on the LIRR by 40% last year, Lieber has said.

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents MTA bus and subway workers, said the fact that overtime has continued to rise despite the MTA's reforms disproves as "an absolute lie"  the notion worker fraud was behind the high costs.

Substantially reducing overtime, Samuelsen said, "will take massive, massive hiring" that MTA officials have determined is not in their financial interest.

"It’s cheaper for them to pay the overtime instead of hiring headcount and taking on new pension costs and health benefit costs,” Samuelsen said. “They obviously keep assessing that to be true, because they continue to do it.”

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