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Thruway overtime put under scrutiny Two-thirds of staff earned $8.3 million extra in '06

The State Thruway Authority paid overtime to nearly two-thirds of its staff last year, leading to a bill that tallied $8.3 million and adding as much as $32,000 to the paychecks of employees.

A Buffalo News analysis of the authority's payroll found 200 employees made more than $10,000 in overtime. Some made substantially more.

Like the toll collector in Albany who picked up $26,175 in overtime.

Or the bridge operator on the Tappan Zee Bridge who nearly doubled his base wage by working $32,317 in overtime.

Or seven of his co-workers on the bridge, just north of New York City, who picked up at least $20,700 each in overtime.

Thruway Authority expenses are under the microscope as the result of proposed toll increases that have raised the hackles of motorists and state lawmakers alike. State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last week agreed to an audit of authority finances with an eye on determining whether a toll increase is necessary.

Some lawmakers said overtime would be a good place to look for savings.

"Eight million dollars in overtime costs is absurd," said State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane. "There has to be a better way of managing their personnel."

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said the amount of overtime pay "is indicative of an authority that's mismanaged, that's lost its sense of mission."

Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael Fleischer declined to comment.

Tolls are scheduled to go up by 10 percent in January for those who pay cash. An authority committee recently recommended additional toll increases of 5 percent each in 2009 and 2010.

Last Thursday, shortly after the state comptroller announced his audit, the authority canceled a meeting scheduled for Monday when the toll increase was expected to be voted on by the authority's governing board.

Overtime costs aren't going to make or break an increase. The $8.3 million in 2006 was a fraction of the authority's $762 million budget. But overtime expenses provide insight into how lean and efficient an operation the authority is. And reducing overtime costs could help reduce about an $80 million annual gap the authority is trying to close with further toll increases.

A previous News analysis had found that full-time employees, on average, earned $55,336 in 2006. The subsequent analysis showed that while base wages account for the vast majority of employee paychecks, 11 cents of every dollar paid out went for overtime and other such compensation, mostly mandated in labor contracts.

Beyond overtime, the authority paid $1.34 million in sick-leave incentives; $660,000 in differentials to work afternoon and overnight shifts; $400,000 to buy back vacation time; and $394,000 in clothing allowances.

Overtime was far and away the largest of these supplemental costs. The authority paid at least $1,000 in overtime to 1,405 employees, most of them full-timers, of which there are some 2,800.

Much of the overtime went to blue-collar workers, equipment operators and maintenance employees involved with construction or snow removal.

Toll collectors picked up quite a bit of overtime, with a staff of 417 full-timers and some 1,110 part-timers.

Last year, 149 full-time toll collectors earned at least $2,500 in overtime, including 29 who made more than $10,000. Part-timers also had in on the action: 600 earned some amount of overtime, with one collecting $6,708.

Contract provisions provide numerous earning opportunities for toll collectors, whose full-time ranks earned an average of $45,335.

Authority officials said most of the overtime earned by toll collectors is the result of them working more than an eight-hour shift to accommodate heavy traffic volume at collection points.

Another factor: A contract provision that mandates full-time collectors be offered overtime to work the shifts of collectors who call in sick for three days or less. As a result, the authority can't call in a lower-paid, part-time employee.

There are other contract provisions that provide toll collectors additional pay.

Collectors get an extra 15 minutes of pay per shift to tally their collections for the day. Those working afternoon or night shifts get an hourly differential of up to $4.50 per shift, as do other blue-collar authority employees.

Part-time toll collectors who make themselves available to work at least half-time can earn up to $145 for each four-week schedule period. And any toll collector who works a barrier or interchange alone gets extra pay for not being able to take a break.

A News analysis of the New York State Canal Corp., a Thruway Authority subsidiary, shows full-time workers there earned an average of about $46,900 in 2006. The canal subsidiary has about 565 year-round and seasonal employees to operate the 524-mile system.

Overtime was less prevalent than at the Thruway Authority, accounting for 2.8 percent of total pay, opposed to 5.3 percent. Nevertheless, 69 employees, or about a quarter of those who work year-round for the canal corporation, made at least $2,500 in overtime, including two who topped $20,000 for the year.


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