Home Service Cuts Report: Under-the-table cuts target overtime

Report: Under-the-table cuts target overtime

by Benjamin Kabak

Some buses don’t run when driver shifts remain empty.

Officially, the MTA Board voted to approve $93 million worth of service cuts earlier this week. Those cuts will go into effect at the end of June and will include a massive restructuring of bus service and the elimination of two subway lines. Under the table, the MTA has, according to a recent report, been scaling back service to cut down the number of overtime hours it pays out as well.

In amNew York today, Heather Haddon writes of cuts through unfilled shifts. When a bus driver calls in sick, the MTA will, instead of filling that shift with a driver set to make $42 an hour as overtime pay, simply allow the buses to miss their scheduled runs. She writes:

To save money, the MTA has reduced the number of drivers used as subs for those who call in sick, resulting in the cancellation of scheduled trips, according to union officials and transit advocates. Up to 15 trips a day have been canceled in at least seven Brooklyn depots in recent weeks, forcing straphangers to wait for an extra 20 minutes at times, they said. In Manhattan, the already sluggish crosstown buses have also taken a hit, union sources said.

“If they cut it any more, it’s useless. It’s just faster to walk as it is,” said Billie Swarztrauber, 61, who recently waited 25 minutes for the crosstown M23 to show up.

A transit spokesman could not confirm the service reduction Thursday, but the cash-strapped agency has been trying to curb the nearly $500 million a year it spends on overtime. Filling the trips is expensive, with drivers earning an average of $42 an hour to work overtime.

The MTA has had a touch-and-go relationship with overtime over the last few years, and this hidden cut seems to be one way to attack what some — but not all — view as a problem. Earlier this year, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli urged the authority to cut its overtime spending. The agency had, he said, spent $577 million in 2008 with five percent of those taking home overtime pay earning 30 percent of the total payouts. Some LIRR engineers pocketed over $200,000.

At first, I was surprised by the overtime numbers. Yet, with the assist of frequent commenter Niccolo Machiavelli, I picked up a different perspective. Niccolo wrote a lengthy defense of overtime and highlighted how it can be cheaper to pay for overtime than to hire more employees. Meanwhile, as he did it, the $577 million in overtime came to approximately 4.5 hours per week of overtime per worker, a figure in line with the national average.

What the authority appears to be doing here is saving through a service cut without making it official. It doesn’t cost the MTA anything not to run buses, and in fact, they save by avoiding extra man-hours. As with every cut, the commuters are the ones who draw the short straw. People wait for a bus that won’t arrive to show up and are left irate indeed.

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6 comments

Andrew March 26, 2010 - 8:12 am

You’re talking about two completely different, and largely unrelated, things.

This article is referring to the “extra list” – a bunch of employees who don’t have assigned jobs, but instead fill in for others who are out sick or otherwise unavailable. Put too many people on the extra list and you end up paying lots of people to sit around doing nothing; put too few and you end up dropping trips because crews aren’t available.

The union is complaining that the MTA has reduced the size of the extra list. Surprise surprise – the union wants to maximize employment opportunities for its members. If you want to know how often this change is actually causing trips to be dropped, I suggest you check with another source. For instance, you could track the “% of Completed Trips” numbers here.

Overtime generally comes into play either when a job has scheduled overtime (i.e., it’s cheaper for the MTA to schedule a bit more than 8 hours into an employee’s schedule than to hire another body) or because a job has run late.

The only connection I can think of between the two topics comes when someone on the extra list, after having sat around doing nothing for 5 or 6 or 7 hours, is assigned to an 8-hour job. I’m not sure why the article brings up overtime – perhaps a misunderstanding on the part of the reporter, or perhaps this specific issue is being highlighted.

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Benjamin Kabak March 26, 2010 - 8:18 am

By and large, these stories are coming to Haddon from the TWU. Take a look back at amNY’s coverage this week, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I guess the agency is cutting back on those who are filing for overtime by taking advantage of the extra list.

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Andrew March 26, 2010 - 5:38 pm

The agency has always taken advantage of the extra list. Those people are paid whether or not they are actually assigned work on any given day; there’s no reason not to use them.

As I said, I suspect the agency is reducing the headcount on the extra list – which reduces the risk that the agency ends up paying someone to do nothing, but increases the risk that a job goes unfilled.

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Al D March 26, 2010 - 9:30 am

Overtime is a part of any business, and a certain percentage should actually be budgeted for. But to cut bus run to save? So what happens if a driver on an overnight shift calls out, and the bus frequency is 60 minutes. So the shift goes unfilled and some poor schlub (hopefully not a senior) would potentially have to wait up to 2 hours for the next bus?!

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Andrew March 26, 2010 - 5:39 pm

Presumably those aren’t the extra list positions being cut.

(And if they were, the situation would be even worse than you describe, since most overnight bus routes have just one bus running back and forth. If the one and only driver is out sick, then, in your scenario, the bus doesn’t run all night! But I highly doubt that actually happens.)

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pb March 26, 2010 - 8:00 pm

Not to mention the many times drivers call out sick right before they’re suppose to leave for assignment. I can’t tell you how many supervisors I know tell me that bus opertors call out “sick” right when they’re suppose to be leaving, then they have to find someone to do it and sometimes they just can’t in time.

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