A train leaves the Syosset LIRR train station on July...

A train leaves the Syosset LIRR train station on July 26, 2011. Credit: Chris Ware

Antiquated record-keeping systems, arcane union work rules, and management’s failure to address years of warnings by auditors and watchdogs have resulted in out-of-control overtime costs at the MTA, particularly among some LIRR employees, according to a report commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The 57-page report, put together by special counsel Carrie Cohen, of the Manhattan law firm of Morrison & Foerster, outlines a series of systemic failures that have contributed to skyrocketing overtime expenses among most of the MTA’s agencies, totaling $1.3 billion last year. The report offered several recommendations on how to rein in the costs, including appointing a specific office to monitor overtime.

“For years, MTA leadership at all levels has been on notice of management’s failures to address overtime issues but has permitted these failures to persist unabated,” Cohen wrote in the report. “By not addressing long recognized overtime issues, MTA leadership has failed in its duty to safeguard the public’s funds and ensure that waste, fraud, and abuse are deterred and prevented.”

The MTA has not disclosed how much it paid the firm to prepare the report.

Although it was an April financial report by the Empire Center for Public Policy — a conservative think tank group — that spurred the MTA’s new push to control overtime costs, the report noted the Empire Center “flagged the issue of high overtime costs at the MTA repeatedly for years,” as did several other public and private agencies. But, the report said, the MTA has been slow to act on recommendations or make any meaningful changes to its inconsistent overtime policies.

Hamstringing the MTA in addressing its overtime problem has been “paper-driven processes and outdated technology” that make it difficult or impossible for managers to appropriately monitor employee attendance, assignments and overtime usage, or to “measure, prevent, or deter waste, fraud, and abuse,” according to the report.

Further constraining managers, the report said, are union work rules that “often lack any modern justification,” but can drive up overtime costs by entitling employees to extra pay for little or no extra work. As one example, the report cited one LIRR work rule that requires “almost all unfilled and vacant positions… must be covered on every shift, which means employees are asked to work overtime to cover these positions even if there is no work to be done.”

The holes in the MTA’s overtime system are particularly pronounced at the LIRR, which has “work rules that can double, triple, and even quadruple an employee’s income from a single shift; seniority rules that give preference for overtime work to the most senior employees, who generally are the highest paid; no overtime caps; a current high demand for work; and weak management controls,” according to the report.

Also driving up overtime, the report said, are “chronically high employee absences across the MTA” that lead to vacancies being filled on overtime. At the LIRR, where overtime is assigned based on seniority, the result can be individual employees working more than 1,000 hours of overtime a year — an amount that “may have serious safety implications,” according to the report.

Cohen made several recommendations to the MTA in the report, including standardizing timekeeping procedures; improving employee and manager training on overtime procedures; appointing a specific office to monitor overtime; and instituting minimum requirements for all MTA agencies’ overtime policies, such as limiting overtime assignments to certain tasks, requiring a supervisor’s approval prior to most overtime assignments, and budgeting for overtime on a monthly basis.

In a statement, MTA spokesman Maxwell Young noted the agency was already implementing some of the recommendations, including through its installation of biometric timeclocks to better monitor employee attendance across agencies. Young said the MTA was “already seeing these efforts pay substantial dividends.”

“This report makes important and well-thought-out recommendations that will help us address the significant problem of excessive overtime, which is particularly important in light of our severe financial condition,” Young said.

LIRR union leader Anthony Simon says the report “contains nothing new,” and instead regurgitates findings from previous probes, including by the MTA inspector general, the state comptroller, and media reports. Simon also noted that many of the recommendations long had been requested by unions, including a study of how the MTA’s current hiring freeze can drive up overtime costs.

“This report in summary suggests that the MTA agencies need to manage better, which our organization has said all along,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — the LIRR’s largest union. “Blaming any of this on work rules, quite frankly, is irresponsible. Collective bargaining is meant for labor and management to get together and help solve each other’s problems, but the agency has chosen to focus on outsiders investigating and doing the managing for them.”

The report is expected to be a topic of discussion at a specially scheduled MTA Board meeting Friday at the agency’s Manhattan headquarters.

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