Long Island Rail Road commuters who have been staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to face problems trying to avoid paying for LIRR trips they are not making.
From delays in getting refunds for unused tickets, to receiving — and being billed for — mail-order tickets they canceled in advance, some LIRR customers say they’ve had a hard time avoiding commuting costs, even though they stopped commuting weeks ago.
Some of the problems stem from confusion over separate processes to cancel a ticket: through the LIRR and the wage deduction programs that many commuters use to pay their tickets. The LIRR acknowledges some problems are due to an overwhelming increase in ticket cancellations and refund requests. Those who have received unwanted monthly tickets can return them and get their money back, the LIRR said.
“I definitely canceled it,” said Farmingdale commuter Kathie Domney, who recently received her $308 May ticket in the mail, despite suspending her “Mail & Ride” account in March. She quickly sent back the May ticket via certified mail. “So we’ll see what happens in June.”
LIRR officials said some of the recent billing issues are due to staffing shortages and other issues caused by COVID-19. Much of the railroad's administrative staff is working modified schedules from home, and has been depleted by the coronavirus. As another complication, processing refunds for unused, returned tickets requires someone to pick up the tickets from a mailroom at the railroad's Jamaica, Queens, headquarters.
All things considered, LIRR president Phillip Eng said his staff has done an "amazing job," and noted that 80% of monthly ticket return/refund requests have been processed.
"We appreciate their patience during these unsettling times and are committed to continue addressing any concerns," Eng said of the LIRR's customers. "Our staff has adjusted to a new normal and been working diligently to address issues due to COVID-19."
Another complicating factor for canceling monthly LIRR tickets is the fact that some commuters pay for their tickets using WageWorks, a benefit program offered by many employers that allows enrollees to pay with pretaxed dollars deducted from their paychecks. In addition to contacting the LIRR to cancel a monthly ticket, WageWorks enrollees have to separately cancel payment through the program provider.
Pass-holders had to contact WageWorks by April 4, and the LIRR by April 10, to cancel their tickets for May.
“As the coronavirus situation develops, we are working diligently to ensure continuity for our members’ commuter benefit,” WageWorks spokeswoman Maureen Locus said. “Long Island Rail Road passengers received communication related to COVID-19 and how to return their Mail & Ride tickets for a credit on their Mail & Ride accounts.”
LIRR officials have told riders they are unable to provide cash refunds for purchases made with pretax funds. Instead, the railroad provides customers a credit that can be applied to a future monthly ticket purchase. After canceling April's ticket, Ronkonkoma commuter Yvonne Sing said the railroad used the credit to bill her for her May ticket, which she thought she also had canceled.
“Then my May ticket comes, and I’m like, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” said Sing, who pays $405 for her ticket each month, and believes the coordination between the LIRR and WageWorks has been unnecessarily convoluted.
“They manage to communicate with each other when they want your money, but there’s no communication when you’re trying to cancel something out. It’s the strangest thing,” Sing said.
Since LIRR customers began staying home in March, ridership has plummeted by more than 95%, as compared to the same period last year. And the railroad has said fare revenue has fallen by about the same amount. The LIRR last year averaged about $64 million in fares each month.
Following complaints from riders who applied for partial refunds for their March tickets and got little or nothing back from the LIRR, the railroad has made some changes to its refund protocols, including by waiving the $10 refund fee for unused Mail & Ride tickets, and by offering to review refund calculations for customers who can provide employer documentation of when they started working from home.
Commuters looking to cancel their June tickets should contact the LIRR by May 12, and WageWorks by Monday, officials from both organizations said.