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Watchdog: MTA overtime drop mostly from weather, virus

MTA inspector general Carolyn Pokorny's report says overtime

MTA inspector general Carolyn Pokorny's report says overtime at the Long Island Rail Road fell by $18 million, from $224 million in 2018 to $206 million last year. Credit: Gregory P. Mango

A report from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's internal watchdog notes that overtime went up at most MTA agencies last year, and that this year’s overall drop is mostly due to improved weather and the COVID-19 pandemic.

MTA inspector general Carolyn Pokorny, in a report updating the authority’s progress in reforming its overtime structure, pointed out that while the agency did cut overtime by $104 million last year as compared to 2018, “The majority of these savings occurred at only one agency.”

New York City Transit, which operates the city’s subway and bus systems, cut overtime by $90 million, Pokorny said. Overtime also fell at the Long Island Rail Road by $18 million, from $224 million in 2018 to $206 million last year. 

But despite an MTA-wide effort to rein in overtime costs that began about a year ago, overtime expenses grew at MTA Bridges and Tunnels, Metro-North Railroad and the MTA Bus Co., which operates some bus routes in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

The report also noted that “while overtime spending in 2020 is down, the change is largely due to good weather conditions and service changes due to the [coronavirus] pandemic, not driven by factors the MTA can rely on to produce savings in the future.”

The MTA, which is the parent agency for the LIRR, zeroed in on overtime costs after the release last spring of a payroll report by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based conservative think tank that revealed OT costs grew 16% from the previous year.

The Empire Center report also illustrated how excessive overtime significantly padded the pay of the MTA’s top earners — leading to several law enforcement agencies launching probes into potential fraud among employees.

Reacting to the firestorm, the MTA hired consultant Morrison and Foerster to conduct its own investigation into overtime costs, and implemented several recommendations made by the firm, including appointing an overtime monitor for the entire authority.

In its follow-up report last month, the Empire Center acknowledged that the MTA’s improved management efforts did bring down overtime costs considerably in 2019, but also pointed out that several employees continued to double, triple or nearly quadruple their base pay through overtime. Four of the MTA's five top overtime earners in 2019 worked for the LIRR, according to the report. 

In her report, Pokorny also pointed out that one of the MTA’s key strategies to address potential overtime abuse — the installation of biometric time clocks that require employees to scan their fingers when arriving and leaving — also has been disrupted by the pandemic. 

“After questions arose about the safety of biometric clocks during a pandemic, the MTA disabled all biometric capabilities in mid-March,” the report noted.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said that although finger-scanning has been suspended, employees not working remotely still swipe cards at the clocks. 

“As the Inspector General reports, the MTA has taken aggressive action to improve overtime management, implemented nine recommendations of the Morrison and Foerster report and reduced overtime by $99 million or 24% in 2020 alone,” Donovan said.

The latest scrutiny of the MTA’s financial practices comes as the agency faces what it says is its worst financial crisis in its history. With COVID-19 decimating ridership and other revenue, the MTA has projected it could lose more than $10 billion through 2021.

The MTA already has received $3.8 billion in aid from the federal government, and is seeking another $3.9 billion. MTA chairman Patrick Foye has said the agency will also seek to cut costs, and during an appearance on Fox 5's "Good Day New York" on Monday, said “what we’re going to do first is reduce overtime.”

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