The MTA installed a biometric employee timekeeping system in 2019 to curb overtime abuse, but it was paused during the pandemic due to sanitary concerns. Employees continue to use the Kronos devices as standard time clocks, punching in and out of job sites with ID cards. Newsday's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The $37 million biometric employee timekeeping system that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority installed four years ago to curb overtime abuse has not been used since March 2020, when sanitary concerns in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic led the transit agency to suspend the system’s finger scanning function, MTA and union officials said.

Instead, even since the federal COVID public health emergency ended in May, workers continue to use the Kronos devices as standard time clocks, punching in and out of job sites with ID cards, according to the leaders of four unions representing the majority of MTA employees.

The practice leaves the transit agency vulnerable to fraud, according to some labor leaders and spending watchdogs.

“It creates opportunities for abuse,” said Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians. “You can trick a clock with a [card] swipe. But you can’t trick a clock if you have to stick your finger in it.”

MTA spokesperson David Steckel said the finger scanning function on the time clocks "was paused during COVID and remains paused," but would not address whether there were plans for its return.

"The MTA has made significant progress over the past five years improving our timekeeping systems and other tools to better manage overtime," Steckel said in a statement.

While some LIRR unions said they don't oppose the finger scanner, the MTA's largest union, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway workers, has said it is unnecessary and shouldn't be required for employees with sanitary concerns.

The biometric timekeeping system, which requires employees to scan a finger to document their location and hours worked, was a key initiative adopted by the MTA to address accusations of overtime fraud following a 2019 report from the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy. That report showed the agency’s record $1.35 billion in overtime spending the previous year included almost 300 workers who nearly tripled their base pay with overtime.

The report led to multiple fraud investigations, and to five current or former Long Island Rail Road employees being convicted of various charges related to lying about their work hours.

Overtime spending fell following the scandal, but last year jumped $200 million, to $1.3 billion, the most since 2018. The MTA has said the increased overtime was necessary to maintain infrastructure and recover from weather-related disruptions with thousands of unfilled positions. The increased overtime costs eat up most of the $305 million in annual revenue the MTA expects to generate from its latest fare increase.

“They should get back to the finger scanning,” said Ken Girardin, fellow at the Empire Center, the conservative think tank that released the MTA payroll report revealing the agency's overtime spending.

“If you aren’t taking time theft seriously, it raises serious questions about more significant cost and safety issues that you’re turning a blind eye to,” Girardin said.

The MTA inspector general and a consultant hired by the transit agency issued more than a dozen recommendations aimed at reducing overtime spending, and excessive overtime among some employees. In addition to using biometric time clocks, the recommendations included improved reporting to MTA leadership, and to the public, on overtime spending, and establishing standards across the MTA for approving overtime.

Through June, the MTA spent $672 million on overtime — 23% over budget for the first half of the year, according to agency records. The LIRR spent $101.8 million on overtime through June, about 3.1% over budget.

Steckel said the MTA has implemented all but one of the inspector general's recommendations — still not having fully integrated the new time clocks with the payroll system used by subway and bus workers to improve the accuracy of their pay. Doing so, he said, "would provide little additional benefit but would cost many millions of dollars," because of the need to develop new software.

The MTA initially planned to have all 70,000 of its employees using the biometric technology to record their time and attendance by early 2020. But just months after rolling out the devices, the MTA suspended the use of the finger scanner.

MTA chief safety officer Patrick Warren, in a memo to employees, said the decision was made out of “an abundance of caution” amid the coronavirus outbreak.

MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber told the New York Post in December 2021 that employees would return to scanning their fingers “sometime soon.” 

In a May 2019 presentation to MTA Board members, the MTA trumpeted the finger scanners' ability to eliminate "buddy punching," wherein one employee records the attendance of another. But, for the past 2½ years, MTA workers have instead been swiping ID cards to record their time and attendance on Kronos time clocks.

Michael Sullivan, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, said he believes that, even with the limited functionality, the devices have helped improve worker accountability.

“People know that they have to be at work eight hours for eight hours’ pay. I see them complying,” said Sullivan, who doesn’t expect any resistance from his members if and when they are required to scan their fingers again. “By and large the employees are doing the right thing. … People are not stealing time. They’re where they’re supposed to be. There never was any pushback.”

However, Sullivan said he’s aware of employees being admonished after being caught swiping other workers’ cards for them. MTA officials would not confirm Sullivan’s account.

Last month, the MTA inspector general’s office released details of an investigation into “unauthorized dual employment” involving two workers who used the Kronos time clocks, but were being paid for working other jobs at the same time.

One of the men claimed to be working at both his job at the LIRR and his other job at an airport, simultaneously, on more than 100 occasions over 31 months — signing in and out of both jobs on Kronos devices. Investigators did not conclude how the worker pulled that off. The worker, who was not criminally charged, since has resigned, and the LIRR is seeking to recover an undisclosed sum of money for hours he did not work.

A Kronos spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Kronos products are used by nearly 7,500 companies, most of them employing more than 1,000 workers, according to business marketing firm Enlyft.

The MTA paid the Ultimate Kronos Group $20 million to develop the biometric timekeeping system in 2018, then another $17 million in 2019 to expand the system. Just weeks after the clocks began being installed in facilities, there were reports of several of the clocks being damaged, leading the MTA inspector general to investigate potential sabotage by workers. The investigation led to the MTA agreeing to better secure the devices, including by installing cameras near some of them.

Some MTA employees, including at the LIRR, have questioned if the time clocks are necessary, and taken issue with their mandated use. They've said the devices limit flexibility for workers to report directly to job sites, rather than travel out of their way to punch in and out.

In December 2021, a cyberattack of the Kronos timekeeping system led to some MTA employees’ personal data being compromised, and worker pay being delayed.

“It clearly has cost the agency way more than it could have gained,” said Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

He added: “The MTA should just get back to the basics of managing properly and relying on their workforce.”

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union — the MTA's largest labor organization — said the transit agency should respect employees' safety concerns and not force them to scan their fingers.

"If transit workers don't want to use them because they think it's unsanitary, then I'm with them," said Samuelsen, who criticized the MTA's intentions to adopt the biometric timekeeping system. "It was just based on absolute malarkey. It was based on a fictitious claim that MTA workers were somehow scamming the system. … You know what ensures that workers are there? Supervision."

Asked for comment regarding MTA overtime, a spokesperson for MTA Inspector General Daniel Cort referred to the office’s multiple reports in recent years criticizing the transit agency for its flawed deployment of the biometric time clocks.

The MTA inspector general’s most recent MTA overtime monitoring report, published in November 2021, said the agency's overtime reform effort was "at risk," in part, because of "shifts in organizational priorities."

Around the same time, Lieber took over the MTA, and pushed for the timely completion of projects that required overtime, like the LIRR's Third Track and its new Grand Central Madison terminal.

The $37 million biometric employee timekeeping system that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority installed four years ago to curb overtime abuse has not been used since March 2020, when sanitary concerns in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic led the transit agency to suspend the system’s finger scanning function, MTA and union officials said.

Instead, even since the federal COVID public health emergency ended in May, workers continue to use the Kronos devices as standard time clocks, punching in and out of job sites with ID cards, according to the leaders of four unions representing the majority of MTA employees.

The practice leaves the transit agency vulnerable to fraud, according to some labor leaders and spending watchdogs.

“It creates opportunities for abuse,” said Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians. “You can trick a clock with a [card] swipe. But you can’t trick a clock if you have to stick your finger in it.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The $37 million biometric timekeeping system put in place by the MTA in 2019 to curb overtime abuse has not been used in 3½ years, MTA and union officials said.
  • The Kronos biometric time clocks originally required workers to scan a finger to document their location and hours worked. But the scanning function was suspended in March 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns, and "remains paused," according to an MTA spokesperson.
  • Some labor leaders and spending watchdogs have said without the biometric function, the timekeeping system is vulnerable to fraud. But the head of the MTA's largest union said workers with sanitary concerns should not be forced to scan their fingers.

MTA spokesperson David Steckel said the finger scanning function on the time clocks "was paused during COVID and remains paused," but would not address whether there were plans for its return.

"The MTA has made significant progress over the past five years improving our timekeeping systems and other tools to better manage overtime," Steckel said in a statement.

While some LIRR unions said they don't oppose the finger scanner, the MTA's largest union, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway workers, has said it is unnecessary and shouldn't be required for employees with sanitary concerns.

Finger scans adopted after record OT

The biometric timekeeping system, which requires employees to scan a finger to document their location and hours worked, was a key initiative adopted by the MTA to address accusations of overtime fraud following a 2019 report from the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy. That report showed the agency’s record $1.35 billion in overtime spending the previous year included almost 300 workers who nearly tripled their base pay with overtime.

The report led to multiple fraud investigations, and to five current or former Long Island Rail Road employees being convicted of various charges related to lying about their work hours.

Overtime spending fell following the scandal, but last year jumped $200 million, to $1.3 billion, the most since 2018. The MTA has said the increased overtime was necessary to maintain infrastructure and recover from weather-related disruptions with thousands of unfilled positions. The increased overtime costs eat up most of the $305 million in annual revenue the MTA expects to generate from its latest fare increase.

“They should get back to the finger scanning,” said Ken Girardin, fellow at the Empire Center, the conservative think tank that released the MTA payroll report revealing the agency's overtime spending.

“If you aren’t taking time theft seriously, it raises serious questions about more significant cost and safety issues that you’re turning a blind eye to,” Girardin said.

The MTA inspector general and a consultant hired by the transit agency issued more than a dozen recommendations aimed at reducing overtime spending, and excessive overtime among some employees. In addition to using biometric time clocks, the recommendations included improved reporting to MTA leadership, and to the public, on overtime spending, and establishing standards across the MTA for approving overtime.

Through June, the MTA spent $672 million on overtime — 23% over budget for the first half of the year, according to agency records. The LIRR spent $101.8 million on overtime through June, about 3.1% over budget.

Steckel said the MTA has implemented all but one of the inspector general's recommendations — still not having fully integrated the new time clocks with the payroll system used by subway and bus workers to improve the accuracy of their pay. Doing so, he said, "would provide little additional benefit but would cost many millions of dollars," because of the need to develop new software.

MTA chair in 2021: Scanner returning 'sometime soon'

The MTA initially planned to have all 70,000 of its employees using the biometric technology to record their time and attendance by early 2020. But just months after rolling out the devices, the MTA suspended the use of the finger scanner.

MTA chief safety officer Patrick Warren, in a memo to employees, said the decision was made out of “an abundance of caution” amid the coronavirus outbreak.

MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber told the New York Post in December 2021 that employees would return to scanning their fingers “sometime soon.” 

In a May 2019 presentation to MTA Board members, the MTA trumpeted the finger scanners' ability to eliminate "buddy punching," wherein one employee records the attendance of another. But, for the past 2½ years, MTA workers have instead been swiping ID cards to record their time and attendance on Kronos time clocks.

Michael Sullivan, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, said he believes that, even with the limited functionality, the devices have helped improve worker accountability.

“People know that they have to be at work eight hours for eight hours’ pay. I see them complying,” said Sullivan, who doesn’t expect any resistance from his members if and when they are required to scan their fingers again. “By and large the employees are doing the right thing. … People are not stealing time. They’re where they’re supposed to be. There never was any pushback.”

However, Sullivan said he’s aware of employees being admonished after being caught swiping other workers’ cards for them. MTA officials would not confirm Sullivan’s account.

Michael Sullivan, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen...

Michael Sullivan, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56. Credit: Morgan Campbell

LIRR worker clocked into two jobs, investigation says

Last month, the MTA inspector general’s office released details of an investigation into “unauthorized dual employment” involving two workers who used the Kronos time clocks, but were being paid for working other jobs at the same time.

One of the men claimed to be working at both his job at the LIRR and his other job at an airport, simultaneously, on more than 100 occasions over 31 months — signing in and out of both jobs on Kronos devices. Investigators did not conclude how the worker pulled that off. The worker, who was not criminally charged, since has resigned, and the LIRR is seeking to recover an undisclosed sum of money for hours he did not work.

A Kronos spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Kronos products are used by nearly 7,500 companies, most of them employing more than 1,000 workers, according to business marketing firm Enlyft.

The MTA paid the Ultimate Kronos Group $20 million to develop the biometric timekeeping system in 2018, then another $17 million in 2019 to expand the system. Just weeks after the clocks began being installed in facilities, there were reports of several of the clocks being damaged, leading the MTA inspector general to investigate potential sabotage by workers. The investigation led to the MTA agreeing to better secure the devices, including by installing cameras near some of them.

Some MTA employees, including at the LIRR, have questioned if the time clocks are necessary, and taken issue with their mandated use. They've said the devices limit flexibility for workers to report directly to job sites, rather than travel out of their way to punch in and out.

In December 2021, a cyberattack of the Kronos timekeeping system led to some MTA employees’ personal data being compromised, and worker pay being delayed.

“It clearly has cost the agency way more than it could have gained,” said Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

He added: “The MTA should just get back to the basics of managing properly and relying on their workforce.”

Subway worker union opposes

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union — the MTA's largest labor organization — said the transit agency should respect employees' safety concerns and not force them to scan their fingers.

"If transit workers don't want to use them because they think it's unsanitary, then I'm with them," said Samuelsen, who criticized the MTA's intentions to adopt the biometric timekeeping system. "It was just based on absolute malarkey. It was based on a fictitious claim that MTA workers were somehow scamming the system. … You know what ensures that workers are there? Supervision."

Asked for comment regarding MTA overtime, a spokesperson for MTA Inspector General Daniel Cort referred to the office’s multiple reports in recent years criticizing the transit agency for its flawed deployment of the biometric time clocks.

The MTA inspector general’s most recent MTA overtime monitoring report, published in November 2021, said the agency's overtime reform effort was "at risk," in part, because of "shifts in organizational priorities."

Around the same time, Lieber took over the MTA, and pushed for the timely completion of projects that required overtime, like the LIRR's Third Track and its new Grand Central Madison terminal.

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