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MTA and LIRR must tame the overtime beast 

MTA chairman Pat Foye during an MTA hearing

MTA chairman Pat Foye during an MTA hearing last week. Credit: Todd Maisel

If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s abundantly clear now.

Overtime at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is out of control, mostly because of a lack of standardized policies, inadequate automated systems and lax record-keeping.

Reining in overtime will require big changes at the MTA -- from oversight of overtime and the work rules that balloon costs to the lack of time-keeping technology. MTA officials can’t change any of that without the unions as partners, rather than adversaries. But if Friday’s contentious MTA board meeting is any indication, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Enough is enough. An MTA report released last week illustrates the problems in excruciating detail, underscoring how the agency paid more than $1.3 billion in overtime last year. Among MTA agencies, the Long Island Rail Road saw the largest bump. It paid $218.8 million in overtime in 2018, 20 percent more than the year before and a staggering 25 percent of the railroad’s total payroll.

The report comes several months after examples of severe overtime abuses became public. In one of the most egregious instances, an LIRR chief measurement operator earned $344,147 in overtime last year. Those apparent abuses are being investigated by federal prosecutors, the Queens district attorney, and the MTA’inspector general.

Some fixes should be easy, such as adding biometric time clocks and other technology across the system to avert abuse. But union officials have made even those changes contentious, arguing that the MTA is rushing its plans and that some workers might have to travel out of their way to clock in electronically.

Still, the MTA must develop and institute mobile systems and technology to track employees who start their days at job sites that don’t have the clocks. The technology exists, and there are ways to address privacy concerns that might emerge when tracking employee whereabouts. Eliminating paper time sheets and the reliance on supervisors keeping track would help improve the system and monitor expenses. Unions should embrace appropriate, sensible change.

The arguments against the clocks don’t bode well for bigger changes that have to come to the nation’s largest public transportation agency, including the elimination of antiquated work rules that drive up overtime. It is absurd that LIRR workers get double pay if they operate a diesel and an electric engine during a single assignment. It is ridiculous that workers are paid for eight hours of work for moving engines at the Sheridan maintenance facility in Queens, a one-hour job.

Of course, overtime is at times necessary and critically important. MTA employees have faced enormous workloads in the last few years, in part because of programs like LIRR Forward and the Subway Action Plan.

But rather than find ways to move forward, union representatives and MTA board members who support Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo chose to go after one another during a raucous board meeting Friday. There was far more bickering than meaningful discussion.

Solving the overtime problem will require them to explore new routes to new answers.

-- The editorial board


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