Home MTA Economics Once more unto the overtime breach

Once more unto the overtime breach

by Benjamin Kabak

The latest from The Post on the MTA’s overtime payouts sure sounds familiar. As MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder is exploring ways to reduce overtime, the MTA, say Tom Namako and James Fanelli, is doling out dollars left and right. It’s an outrage! Or is it?

First, the story:

As the MTA was announcing plans in 2009 to eliminate two subway lines and 33 bus routes, thousands of employees — from agency presidents to train mechanics — were pocketing millions in overtime and other perks, The Post has learned.

Hogging a stunning slice of the overtime were Long Island Rail Road employees, who benefit from arcane union work rules that allow everyday engineers and grease monkeys to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars above their salaries while barely lifting a wrench. Railroad employees account for more than half of the top 100 overtime earners in 2009, records show.

Monica Hunter, a supervisor for the LIRR, was the highest overtime earner, pulling in a staggering $155,000 on top of her $79,000 salary last year. Track foreman Vincent Mazzola wasn’t far behind, scoring $148,000 on top of his $82,000 salary. Work rules — some more than a century old — allow employees to game the system. For example, when crew members are switched from one train to the next, they are contractually given another day’s full pay.

The MTA Inspector General, says The Post, is currently conducting a review of these pesky LIRR work rules from another era, but for The Post, that investigation and analysis seems nearly beside the point. Look at how wasteful the MTA is!

But let’s step back from the snarky exclamation points and the initial outrage to ask another question: Did these two reporters actually ask the MTA how much it would cost to fill the vacant shifts without overtime? How much more would the MTA be paying in salary and, more importantly, benefits and pension plans if the authority hired a new worker for every 40 hours of overtime per week? That would, I think, be a vital piece of information to have before slamming the MTA for doling out the overtime. It is possible for overtime to be a money-saver.

When a state comptroller report called for tighter overtime regulations, frequent SAS commenter Niccolo Machiavelli left a very detailed comment with some overtime math. Based upon the numbers, the average MTA worker puts in 4.5 hours of overtime a week, a figure well within range of the national average. While it’s easy to highlight the outliers, the MTA’s overtime isn’t nearly as problematic as it seems.

It makes sense, of course, for the authority to modernize its overtime rules. LIRR employees, for example, shouldn’t draw overtime just because they have to go work on another train to fill out their shift. But it pays to look a little deeper at the problem before proclaiming it to be one.

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10 comments

Scott E May 4, 2010 - 8:13 am

The difference between working on the rails versus a typical “office” job is that you can’t simply head home when you’re work is done. Lets say a conductor who lives in Far Rockaway normally ends his shift at (logically) Far Rockaway, maybe nearby Jamaica. If he suddenly needs to fill in on a train run that ends in, say, Greenport (these trains are few and far between), he needs a way to get back home. The agency can’t just drop him off 90 miles from home and tell him that his work is done for the day. They need to keep him on the clock (overtime) until he can get back to a reasonable location.

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AK May 4, 2010 - 9:51 am

I’m not sure I get your point, Scott. Nobody else gets paid for commuting time, so you can’t possibly mean that transit workers should be on the clock for that time, either. Maybe you mean that their shifts should end close to home, rather than a Montauk resident ending at Penn Station, but I imagine Transit already tries to end shifts close to a worker’s home…or at least, on/close to the line serving the worker’s home…

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Scott E May 4, 2010 - 10:22 am

True, no one gets paid for commuting time to and from their regular business locations, but they do get paid for business-related travel. So if I am am hourly employee who generally starts and ends my day in Queens, but I have a need to do work in Suffolk County, my travel-time is on the company.

For bus drivers or maintenance workers who drive work vans/trucks, it’s pretty clear. They need to drive the vehicle back to where they got it after performing a repair, and driving an agency vehicle is prohibited by those not on-the-clock. But I can’t see stranding an on-train worker in a remote area like that. I’m sure union rules are pretty clear on that.

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John May 4, 2010 - 9:57 am

I think the issue may lie more with sick time than overtime. Like, if someone calls in sick, they call someone in to cover their shift. That person would probably be getting overtime. Get rid of sick days and I think some of your overtime abuse would go away too. Probably not a ton, but it would be a good start.

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john b May 4, 2010 - 11:39 am

so what happens when, you know, someone gets sick? or are you saying to remove the distinction between sick days and vacations days so instead you have a yearly paid time off package and then workers don’t feel the need to fake being sick to have some time off?

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John May 4, 2010 - 2:41 pm

Yes, I’m saying remove the distinction between sick days and vacation days. You get so much paid time off a year, whether you use it when you’re sick or when you’re on vacation.

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Nesta May 4, 2010 - 3:43 pm

The problem is unlike normal jobs these are 24/7 every day of the year jobs so the authority doesn’t want you to take days off. In the TA you must pick your vacation weeks almost a year in advance!

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John May 4, 2010 - 5:56 pm

It does make it more complicated when vacation is scheduled that far in advance, but I think it could still work. And maybe sick day abuse isn’t bad enough to warrant any change, but logically it seems that sick days and overtime must be connected in some way.

BrooklynBus May 6, 2010 - 9:26 am

Wouldn’t eliminating the distimction actually cost more money? Everyone is entitled to vacation days, but only to sick days when you are sick. If not, you don’t get to use them unless you abuse the system. Some workers are paid for half their remaining sick balance when they retire, but that still leaves the remainder unused which you would be giving away free.

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DiNapoli audit targets overtime but says nothing new :: Second Ave. Sagas August 6, 2010 - 12:42 am

[…] highlighted the overtime issue, and again in May, he spoke about how the authority will try to limit overtime shifts in order to save money. In between, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli urged the MTA to […]

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