Scenes around Jamaica LIRR station in Jamaica.

Scenes around Jamaica LIRR station in Jamaica. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It’s not entirely a surprise that five Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees, including four who work or worked at the Long Island Rail Road, are being accused of fraud in an alleged overtime scandal.

After all, this isn’t the first time MTA workers have been involved in schemes to pad their paychecks. And it’s not surprising that the MTA, strangled by bureaucracy and union resistance to reforms, never catches on.

In this case, credit goes to the Empire Center, a think tank, which first unveiled the overtime spending in 2019.

The egregious abuses federal prosecutors charged the workers with, if proven accurate, are appalling and unacceptable. The employees allegedly bilked the authority for overtime pay while they were vacationing in Virginia, or bowling in Patchogue, or going to a concert in Atlantic City. Together, they earned more than $1 million in overtime for work they apparently didn’t do.

Equally frustrating is that above those employees were supervisors, middle managers, and top executives, all of whom either didn’t know about the workers’ actions, or allowed them to happen. And no colleague blew a whistle. How is any of that possible?

Perhaps most troubling: While this corruption dates to 2018, the deep-seated culture that allowed these bold acts to happen remains. That’s why it’s so hard to trust the MTA can fix things.

The authority, which promises to reduce overtime by nearly $1 billion over five years, has rightly taken steps toward that goal, including installing biometric time clocks and adding an overtime dashboard for MTA managers to keep track.

But the authority hasn’t used the clocks during the pandemic, since they require a fingerprint. And according to the MTA’s inspector general, the MTA hasn’t done enough to integrate the changes, train and require managers to utilize the new technology, and enforce new guidelines. All of that has to change. MTA officials must do more to make overtime reform a reality, and to instill a culture where abuses are not tolerated. The MTA also should push the federal Railroad Retirement Board to claw back any ill-gained pension money.

To address the overtime offenses, labor leaders must be part of the answer. The LIRR’s top union official, Anthony Simon, defended the workers, and didn’t condemn the overall misuse of overtime. Union officials previously fought the clocks and other changes. Most LIRR employees are doing their jobs right and union officials should stand up for them, not the scammers.

This scandal comes at an awful time for the MTA, which is proposing fare increases and budget cuts, while begging the federal government for $12 billion to fill a massive budget gap left by the pandemic. If federal officials wanted a reason to say no, at first glance, overtime seems to provide one. It’s not a reason, and the authority still needs federal help.

But that doesn’t mean the MTA is off the hook. The authority has an enormous task ahead, to show it will make necessary reforms, cut back as much overtime as possible, change its culture and regain the public’s trust.

— The editorial board


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