Some of the shortfalls in management that contributed to alarmingly high overtime rates among many Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers "remain largely unchanged" a year after the transit agency promised major reforms, according to the MTA’s internal watchdog.
Addressing MTA Board members at their monthly meeting Wednesday, MTA inspector general Carolyn Pokorny said she was "troubled to learn that the serious control gaps" in the agency’s overtime system that her office identified in an October 2019 report remain in place, including record keeping that relies heavily on "the honor system."
While suggesting some delays in the reforms were expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MTA’s overall lack of progress in instituting important overtime reforms "worries us," Pokorny said.
"Bottom line: While the pandemic has slowed reform efforts — and we’re sympathetic to that — it’s really time for everyone involved to recommit themselves to the goals of the [MTA’s overtime] task force to ensure overtime is well managed and used wisely," Pokorny said.
Pokorny’s office — and other law enforcement agencies — began looking into potential time and attendance fraud at the MTA last year after a payroll report by the Empire Center for Public Policy revealed alarming overtime rates among the agency’s top earners — particularly at the LIRR. The MTA’s highest-paid employee in 2018, LIRR chief measurement operator Thomas Caputo, made more than $344,000 in overtime, on top of his $117,499 annual salary. He has retired.
Pokorny’s full report on the MTA’s overtime progress, released Friday, does credit the agency with making "significant progress toward the recommended overtime reforms," including by developing metrics to determine when it is cost-efficient to use overtime.
"As the Inspector General notes, most recommended reforms have already been implemented even during a pandemic, and results are clear: overtime expense was reduced by $70 million in the first nine months of this year, with another $200 million projected to be cut in 2021," MTA spokeswomen Meredith Daniels said Friday in a statement.
But the MTA has fallen short on making other important changes, according to Pokorny, who had recommended several management reforms to rein in out-of-control overtime spending, including through the use of an attendance verification system.
The MTA last year began an effort to install biometric time clocks at all employee facilities that required workers to scan their fingerprints to record when they arrive and leave work. The finger scanning function was suspended in March over pandemic-related safety concerns.
Although the MTA already had installed the new time clocks throughout much of its system, Pokorny noted that the devices had not yet been integrated with the agency’s payroll system — a critical component of her office’s recommendations. The MTA originally predicted it would complete that effort in November 2019.
"It’s really important that this happen," she said. "Until the timekeeping clocks are integrated with payroll, the supervisor can only use the electronic time and attendance information well after the fact to identify anomalies."
Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, said it was "troubling" that Pokorny’s office questioned the progress of the MTA’s time and attendance reforms during a pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak has created several logistical issues in monitoring time and attendance, Simon said, including because of changing work locations, gathering restrictions, and risks from sharing time clocks.
"We need to continue to focus on the safety of our essential workers who came to work everyday while everyone else worked from home safely," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. "How about we focus on the safety of our members and our riders, since the pandemic is far from over?"
Pokorny’s report also found that "outstanding concerns remain" with the MTA’s progress in establishing minimum requirements for overtime policies and procedures, and with training employees on overtime protocols.
MTA Board member Lawrence Schwartz, who chairs the agency’s finance committee and has led the drive to overhaul overtime procedures, said the information in Pokorny’s report contradicted "the more optimistic view of our progress" that he had heard from MTA administrators.
"The concern was, from the get-go, that managers weren’t being properly trained and properly supervised. It seems to be that there hasn’t really been a corrective action in terms of that problem. And they’re supposed to be the gatekeepers," said Schwartz, who requested an updated timeline for the implementation of Pokorny’s recommendations at the MTA Board meeting in November.
The MTA also recently rolled out an electronic "overtime dashboard" available to managers throughout the MTA said "will further empower senior managers to control and reduce costs."