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NY authority workers tripling pay with generous overtime

A train car repairman for the Long Island Rail Road earned nearly $203,000 last year - more than the New York transportation authority's chief operating officer - thanks to overtime bonuses that workers are able to receive under union rules, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority confirmed to msnbc.com.

Repairman Vincent Blackburn was one of 20 employees who received a six-figure overtime bonus in 2011, as first reported by The New York Post. Blackburn earned more than double his base pay of $66,539.12 in overtime, the paper said, in part due to an arcane labor agreement called "Rule 24."

Rule 24 has been phased out at all but one transit facility: the Long Island Rail Road's Richmond Hill, Queens, repair center, where Blackburn and seven of the 10 highest overtime earners work, reported The Post. Whether or not manpower is actually needed, Rule 24 calls for all vacant positions on certain shifts to be filled by the railroad, creating opportunities for huge overtime payments that increase with seniority.

Blackburn wasn't available for comment Tuesday morning. Aaron Donovan, MTA spokesman, confirmed to msnbc.com that the Post report was accurate, and said Rule 24 is one of a number of labor relations issues the MTA is hoping to address, but he said it's subject to the collective bargaining process with unions.

However, year-over-year overtime pay is declining, he said. 

"Over time, expenses have gone down," Donovan told msnbc.com. "This was a focus on the top 10 [earners]. Certainly people do earn overtime, but the overall aggregate figure is down."

While the MTA hopes to reduce overtime across the board, the Long Island Rail Road has been one of the areas it's focused on the most. In 2010, LIRR overtime hours were reduced by 12.6 percent, or $13.4 million, compared to the prior year, Donovan said. They stayed at that level in 2011, and then, for the first four months of 2012, overtime hours decreased again by 5.9 percent compared to the same period in 2011, resulting in a savings of $1.8 million in overtime expenses, he said.

News of the large overtime packages comes amid a hike in fares for MTA riders in 2011. There are plans for more fare increases of about 7.5 percent in 2013 and again in 2015, the MTA chairman told NBC New York earlier this year.

While Rule 24 assisted in the bonuses at Richmond Hill's repair shop, employees of another quasi-public agency, the Port Authority, padded their base salaries with hefty overtime compensation, too. Sergeant Edwin Rivera, 43, was the biggest overtime earner out of the 44,000 Porth Authority employees for 2011, the Post found. A search on SeeThroughNY.net, a database of earnings for New York public employees, reveals Rivera pulled in $166,035 in addition to his base pay of $107,911. Rivera, of Staten Island, gets about $52 an hour to supervise police officers; that increases to $77.82 per hour for time-and-a-half overtime.

Rivera has already worked 888 hours of overtime in 2012 - about 40 hours per week - putting him on track to earn even more in 2012, an official told The Post. He has consistently been a top overtime earner in his 16 years at the Port Authority, partially because Port Authority has only 141 sergeants on the force, 20 fewer than needed, said The Post.

Port Authority: Curtailing overtime hours is a priority
Calls to Rivera went unanswered on Tuesday. A statement from Port Authority media relations said reducing overtime was a top priority. 

"Since late last year, the agency has conducted a wide-ranging audit of operational spending, including police overtime, with the first quarter of 2012 realizing a 14 percent drop in the agency’s overall overtime hours," the statement, issued Tuesday afternoon to msnbc.com, read. "Reforms include increased documentation, reviews of overtime to improve compliance, and oversight by the agency’s future Chief Security Officer to curtail excessive police overtime."

Christopher Garrick, another repairman at the Long Island Rail Road's Richmond Hill, Queens, repair center, got more than $124,300 in overtime last year in addition to his base salary of $64,367.42. Garrick could not be reached by msnbc.com.

According to an MTA report from January 2011 that outlines cost-saving measures, the agency began a crackdown in 2009 on "unnecessary overtime that will save the MTA $70 million annually." Reducing administrative staff, consolidating MTA back office functions and freezing non-represented employees' wages were also listed.

Bloated overtime pay isn't the only problem the MTA is facing. Last week, the State Comptroller's Office revealed findings from a two-year audit of a unit of the MTA's Metro-North Railroad. Workers who were supposed to "monitor train conditions and crew performance were not on the job when they were scheduled to work and performed poorly when they were," the audit said.

In an examination of 300 rides, the comptroller's office discovered employees in Metro North's On-Board Services Unit had little to no supervision and "surfed the internet during work hours, including spending 6.5 hours on firearm sites and Google and 5 hours on various commercial sites such as Chuck E. Cheese. Reviews of cell phone usage found little communication between staff members and their supervisor but did find out-of-state calls and calls home."

The MTA has disbanded the unit as a result of the audit. More changes are likely to follow, Jennifer Freeman, communications director for the Office of the State Comptroller, told msnbc.com.

"The MTA is an entity that we have looked at quite extensively," Freeman said. "We are concerned about the questionable practices that we've identified. We're going to continue to probe employment at the MTA on an ongoing basis, and we expect there are a number of things we'll be looking at, given what we've identified through the course of our audits."

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