As the fiscal and management control board overseeing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority looks at potential 5 to 10 percent fare increases as soon as July, new data about huge overtime payments to T workers are rekindling a long-running debate: Does the T need more reform before it asks riders for more revenue?
The latest example of what many consider massive T overspending to come to light was this week’s disclosure that many unionized T workers can get a perk most Massachusetts workers cannot: Overtime for days they work more than 8 hours, even if they don’t put in more than 40 hours that week, or take days off or call in sick. Under Massachusetts labor law, most workers have to put in a total of over 40 hours in a week before they can collect overtime that week.
A new MBTA overtime audit found that last year, the transit agency paid $31.8 million in such overtime to workers. To put the size of that number in context, the 5 percent or 10 percent fare increases the T is considering would generate an estimated $33 million to $50 million a year in new revenue.
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Auditors have found examples of many T workers bringing home over $100,000 a year in overtime, including a rapid transit maintenance supervisor who collected $171,257 in overtime pay last year on top of a base salary of $85,049.
No one has yet formally alleged any T workers are breaking rules or claiming bogus overtime. Unions note that these overtime rules were collectively bargained and signed off on by past MBTA management.
But the T now has accounting firm KPMG reviewing payrolls records and timesheets for its highest overtime earners in 2014 and 2015, and fiscal control board members are reviewing policies to try to get overtime under control.
Fiscal watchdogs like Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, call that effort critical, especially with a fare increase looming.
“It's going to take a while to fix but they really have to, before they go to riders and ask for more money and increase fares, I think it's clearly critical that they make sure that they take care of some of those issues and certainly overtime is one of them,’’ McAnneny said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
“I think it's incredibly important that we instill some confidence in the MBTA,’’ McAnneny said. “They really have to demonstrate that they’ve made some progress, and that they’re taking all the necessary steps to make sure that they are optimizing the dollars that they already have. So that there’s not outrage on the part of riders, I really think they have to fix some of these management problems that have been lingering for decades.’’
The fiscal control board is also reviewing reports of high levels of unscheduled absences by bus, subway, and trolley operators – a problem many critics say goes hand in hand with overtime use and abuse because the more T workers don’t show up for work, the more the authority has to assign workers on overtime to cover shifts so buses, trains, and trolleys keep running.