Seven of eight MTA employees who made more than $200,000 in overtime last year worked for the Long Island Rail Road, including one track foreman who was paid a total of nearly $361,000 in a single year, according to a new report.
The data, compiled by the Albany-based think tank the Empire Center for Public Policy and released Monday, reveals that the MTA’s top earner in 2016, Ralph Golden, made $256,155 in overtime — more than tripling his base salary of $104,822.
Empire Center representatives said Golden’s total compensation, which topped the $346,706 salary of outgoing Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief executive Thomas Prendergast last year, was “part of a general surge in MTA overtime in 2016.” Golden did not respond to a request for comment.
The report, which comes after a slew of major LIRR service disruptions in recent weeks and a fare increase in March that brought the average cost of a monthly railroad ticket to $335, sparked a swift backlash from commuters on social media. “This is outrageous!” Twitter user @oa4sis wrote. “More pay, worse service and higher pensions for #LIRR.”
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR’s largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents Golden and some other top LIRR earners, said railroad workers “will answer the call” whenever the railroad needs them to put in extra hours, as they did during several emergencies in 2016. He said the LIRR can always hire more employees, but emphasized that experience is key “when dealing with sensitive safety conditions.”
“Employees who are receiving the high overtime earnings that are being reported are literally working around the clock to oversee the important repairs and necessary work to keep our system safe,” Simon said. “These foremen as well as all LIRR employees are away from their homes and families for days to ensure both the emergency work and scheduled track work is being performed properly.”
In a statement, MTA spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said many jobs of the agency’s top earners “are highly specialized, can’t be performed by entry-level employees and are essential” to running a round-the-clock transportation network.
Overall, overtime for the MTA — which operates the city’s transit system and Metro-North Railroad, in addition to the LIRR — climbed 4 percent last year, to $971 million from $934 million in 2015. Of the MTA’s 77,342 employees, 177 made overtime pay in the six figures last year — and of those, 112 worked for the LIRR. Overall, the commuter railroad’s overtime pay jumped 10 percent last year.
In a February report, the MTA’s Finance Committee attributed the 2016 rise in overtime costs to several factors, including LIRR crews trying to get more maintenance work done during track shutdowns, and increased unscheduled maintenance, including during four LIRR derailments last year.
However, records show that the MTA’s top earners in 2016 have been raking in major overtime dollars for years. Golden made $290,533 in total earnings in 2015. The MTA’s second-highest-paid employee in 2016, track foreman Joseph Ruzzo, made $359,982 last year and $333,128 in 2015.
In all, Golden, Ruzzo and another track foreman, Joseph Biondo, made more than a million dollars last year. Ruzzo and Biondo did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Empire Center executive director Tim Hoefer said that while overtime costs are unavoidable, they are also an indicator of how efficiently an organization is run.
“The thing that I find outrageous, as a commuter or taxpayer or rate payer, is about the conditions of the system and the timeliness of trains and how often they run and how clean they are,” Hoefer said Monday. “Certainly, it’s not a cheap endeavor. But we want to make sure that we’re taking those dollars and being a good steward of them for the LIRR.”
The overtime figures compiled by the Empire Center include wages paid through lucrative union work rules — some of which date to the 1920s — that pay LIRR employees extra for certain assignments. For example, a locomotive engineer can make two days’ pay if he operates an electric train and a diesel train during the same shift.
Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies for the Citizens Budget Commission of New York, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said the MTA has long wanted to abolish some of the work rules. However, they’ve stuck around, in part, because LIRR workers have been willing to make concessions that are more valuable to management — such as contributing to health care — in order to protect work rules that benefit fewer workers, but can be very lucrative, he said.
“When certain workers can be hurt significantly by changes in certain work rules, they’re going to stand up for those work rules,” Dague said. “These are rules that have been baked into the collective bargaining agreement for a long time and really reduce the agency’s flexibility when it comes to efficiently deploying resources and labor.”
The LIRR pay figures come as the railroad’s unions recently ratified their latest contract. The 28-month deal guarantees raises of 2.5 percent a year and does not change health care contribution costs.