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John Petro

Working Overtime to Attack the MTA

There are those that assume the public sector is inherently inefficient. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate about the MTA budget crisis. If only the MTA could cut out “wasteful” spending, the crisis would disappear. Better yet, the thinking goes, we could just privatize the system and not only would the budget gap disappear, but service would be better than ever.

These assumptions result in newspaper coverage like this piece in the New York Post on overtime spending at the MTA. It appears that some MTA workers earn overtime, and apparently this is unacceptable. Even worse, these workers are union employees, and they have the audacity to work for overtime pay.

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.

In a great rebuke, Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas shows that once you begin to question the core assumption of public sector inefficiency, the outrage fizzles into a shrug.

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… 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.

And if you look at how much the MTA is spending on overtime, you will find that there really isn’t much to be outraged about. In 2008, five percent of all MTA operating expenses (excluding debt payments) went to overtime pay. In 2009, the figure stayed at five percent. And in 2010, it will fall to four percent.

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Posted at 5:51 PM, May 05, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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