The Illinois Executive Inspector General says reviews of thousands of documents covering Metra engineers, conductors, and trainmen, revealed a longstanding practice allowing the falsification of hours-of-service logs, employees receiving pay for not working, and in some cases, not receiving pay for time worked.
The investigators allege the practice lasted at least 28 years. But Metra contends that the entire matter is essentially much ado about nothing, a legacy practice inherited from a previous railroad, which cost zero to the taxpayers and is no longer in effect.
The IG’s office said it received a complaint of ghost payrolling on the Metra Electric District Line. Specifically, the anonymous allegation said that engineers and conductors were trading job assignments with each other and paying each other cash, while Metra was still paying them. That ghost payrolling complaint was never substantiated.
What the inspector found instead, was a scheduling practice, where engineers and conductors helped fill each other’s shifts.
“The OEIG finds that Metra did pay a substantial number of employees even though they did not work, and also finds that Metra allowed employees to engage in a so-called ‘change in assignment’ practice that resulted in inaccurate or falsified Federal Railroad Administration hours of service logs, which covered employees are required to maintain in order to assure public safety.”
Federal guidelines state that no employee engaged in commuter train or engine service may be required or permitted to work more than 12 consecutive hours, with ten consecutive hours off following each assignment. Federal law also stated that employees could not work more than six consecutive days without 24 consecutive hours off.
“The investigation revealed that Metra regularly paid numerous employees even though they did not work,” the report says. “Perhaps even more disturbing, was the fact that although Metra managers, employees, and (Executive Director Don) Orseno were fully aware of the requirement that employees accurately log their hours of service, Metra allowed its employees to engage in a ‘change of assignment’ practice,” which the IG says resulted in those employees “clearly falsifying their Federal Railroad Administration hours of service logs.”
“The majority of the ‘swaps’ occurred on Saturdays, thus allowing employees assigned to work to not work, but still get paid. The change in assignment practice was so ingrained that, even though no written policy existed, Metra created a form requiring management approval.”
The report describes a system where employees worked for each other, with the “off” employee continuing to receive his check, while he took responsibility for paying cash to the employee who filled in. But crew callers, responsible for actual scheduling, say they were never given paperwork documenting the changes, raising questions about maintaining the federally proscribed separations of hours and work assignments.
One Metra official admitted that he “does not compare the FRA logs to Change in Assignment forms, Crew Call sheets, or Payroll records to determine the FRA logs are completed accurately.” Another stated he was unable to say, “if employees improperly or inaccurately completed their FRA logs when they changed assignments.”
Metra delivered a stinging response.
“Reasonable people may question whether the OEIG report released today, after three years and the investments of hundreds of hours of public employee time served a real purpose and was a prudent use of taxpayer dollars,” the agency said in a statement. “The report addresses a decades-old railroad industry employee practice that was discontinued at Metra nearly three years ago.”
The practice was reportedly terminated in 2011, with allowances only for “emergency situations”.
“Swapping shifts with similarly qualified employees goes back at least 40 years,” the statement said. “We can say, with complete confidence, (the practice) never involved “ghost payrolling—employees were paid only for shifts actually worked and documented—and never cost the taxpayers a dime.”
“There were indeed some paperwork inaccuracies, but at no time was safety compromised,” the statement said.
In a letter to the IG, Metra chairman Martin Oberman said the entire matter could have easily been settled without such a lengthy investigation, with better results.
“Not every circumstance involving administrative irregularities reported to your office warrants such an exhaustive investigation,” Oberman wrote. “The issues involved in this ‘swapping’ matter never involved intentional wrongdoing, or a misuse or theft of public funds. Rather, the issues involved historic practices in the railroad industry, and the need to modernize our administrative approach in handling such practices.”
Executive Director Don Orseno took that one step further.
“The report provides little value to Metra, is misleading to the public, and damages the collective reputation of hardworking Metra employees,” Orseno wrote. “(The swapping practice) never involve fraud, waste, abuse, or misconduct.”
“Every assignment was worked, every assignment was needed, and every assignment was paid for only once,” Orseno said. “Each job was compensated at the cost of the assignment, nothing more, nothing less.”