Metro-North track workers raking in OT

| The Journal News

Metro-North track workers continue to rake in six-figure overtime payouts repairing rail that critics say had been neglected for decades, placing them among the highest paid employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a new study shows.

Among the 2016 overtime leaders was Metro-North machinist Eduardo Vargas who for the past four years has ranked among the commuter rails’ top overtime earners, according to an analysis by Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank that promotes fiscal conservatism.

In 2016, Vargas made more than $200,000 in overtime and a total payout of $287,355, according to data analyzed by SeeThroughNY.net, the center’s website.

Trailing Vargas but not by much were a pair of Metro-North track supervisors. Robert M. O’Connell made more than $190,000 in overtime last year and a total payout of $294,000, the analysis shows. And Richard M. Bourt Jr. made roughly $183,000 in overtime and a total pay of $280,000.

Seven of the eight MTA employees who made more than $200,000 in overtime worked as foremen for the Long Island Rail Road. Vargas was the eighth. The Empire Center’s analysis looked at all overtime earnings for the MTA, Metro-North’s parent agency.

“Overtime is an unavoidable cost for virtually any business or government agency, but those costs are an indicator of how efficiently an organization is run,” said Tim Hoefer, the executive director of Empire Center. “For Metro-North, the continued growth of those costs gives taxpayers and riders a good reason to question whether they’re getting the most for their money.”

The MTA responded by noting that union contract rules set payout amounts.

“The MTA has cut more than $1.6 billion in annual expenses since 2010 as part of our rigorous efforts to control costs. Many of the jobs listed are highly specialized, can’t be performed by entry-level employees and are essential to operating a transportation network around-the-clock, every day of the year,” said MTA spokeswoman Beth DeFalco. “The alternative to overtime for these specialized jobs would be to have more employees at a higher cost to the MTA and riders. The amount that certain individuals earn is governed by collective bargaining agreements. The MTA has effective checks and balances in place to monitor and minimize non-essential overtime.”

Making up for lost time

Vargas fixes the machinery used in track maintenance, which has garnered more and more of Metro-North’s attention — and money — in recent years amid several derailments that raised questions about whether workers were being given enough time to make repairs.

 In 2013, more than 70 passengers were injured when a Metro-North train went off the tracks near Bridgeport, Connecticut, and sideswiped an oncoming train. Federal safety regulators say the rush-hour accident was caused by a broken joint bar that left a gap between two pieces of rail that were not welded together properly.
In an interview last year, Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti acknowledged that in the past track maintenance had been put on hold.

“I’ve made it a point to not be critical of the past administrations but, at the end of the day, we have to admit that we’re still in a situation right now that maintenance got deferred,” Giulietti told The Journal News/lohud. “We’re trying to now catch up.”

The Bridgeport accident has led to nearly $22 million in legal costs and settlements, according to Metro-North figures obtained by The Journal News/lohud.

A 2016 investigation by The Journal News/lohud revealed that in 2015 Vargas logged 5,043 hours, which averages out to 14-hour days, seven days a week for an entire year. His overtime pay was nearly $157,000 and total pay $236,000, according to Empire Center.

The year before, Vargas made $309,182 in salary and overtime, some $41,000 more than Giulietti earned that year, a Journal News/lohud investigation found. Giulietti made $308,000 last year.

© 2017 lohud