The Empire State Center for New York State Policy — a project for the right-of-center Manhattan Institute which has turned out-of-control pension costs into its cause célèbre — released its entire MTA payroll data for 2009 yesterday, and as we can imagine, the hand-wringing has begun. If we want to assign blame, though, a bloated work force could trump inflated salaries.
As the Empire Center reported, the MTA’s total payroll increased by 2.4 percent in 2009. With the TWU, one of the MTA’s largest unions, earning its members a four percent raise last year, some of the MTA’s cost-cutting measures must have been successful. Meanwhile, more than 10 percent of the workforce take home salaries in excess of $100,000. The Center published a PDF list of the top 100 earners, and by and large, these are people who deserve their salaries. Compensation under $300,000 for agency heads seems downright cheap compared to what these workers would make in the private sector.
The Empire Center’s press release offered up some good tidbits. In the $150,000-and-over club were 11 LIRR car repairmen who nearly tripled their base salary through overtime shifts. Others included:
- 65 Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Railroad conductors who averaged $86,837 over their base salaries which averaged $75,970;
- 53 Bridge & Tunnel Sergeants and Lieutenants who averaged $94,962 over the average base pay of $82,594;
- 34 Long Island and Metro-North Railroad engineers who averaged $89,109 over their $77,953;
- 28 MTA police officers; and
- 23 Long Island Railroad gang foremen averaging $81,718 over their base pay rate $82,249.
To drill down on the salary figures, the Empire Center has provided the public with a salary database as well. Things get interesting when we start looking at what train operators made. One took home over $81,000 on a base salary of $28.65 an hour. That comes out to 350 eight-hour shifts in one calendar year or a lot of overtime. Overall, New York City Transit’s 3487 TOs took home a combined $239.7 million last year.
I could go on and on with the numbers; it is, after all, strangely addictive and voyeuristic to see what these public employees make. But lists of not-that-outrageous compensation figures serves little purpose. To identify cost savings, the MTA has to figure out how to reduce not just overtime but man-hours as well. A proposed plan to offer early-retirement packages that the MTA and TWU are discussing could be a good start, but the issue won’t be solved by attacking overtime or adjusting work rules alone.
Rather, one of the problems facing the MTA is the sheer number of people it employs in mostly redundant positions. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road pay far too many people to collect train tickets, and Transit has a staff of 3487 train operators that could, with current technology, be chopped in half. While union members protective of their jobs claim that one-person train operation will slow down transit, real-life application of that advancement has done nothing of the sort throughout the transit world. We simply do not need two people driving and controlling the subways any longer.
For its part, the MTA noted its attention to payroll reduction, but the unions were largely silent after the Empire Center released the data. “We are in the process of overhauling every aspect of our business, including the elimination of approximately 3,000 positions this year,” the authority said in a statement. “One key part of this effort is a focus on the work rules, pension padding and management oversight that leads to some of the unnecessary overtime highlighted in today’s report.”
Yet, that approach almost misses the point. As management and its unionized workers square off over cost-cutting measures, inevitably, the debate turns to battles over compensation figures that aren’t too high. It’s time to reframe that debate, and while OPTO and a more efficient commuter rail ticketing system would involve cutting a large number of employees, the MTA is saddled with too many workers at all levels. That’s the real problem.