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MTA Can't Afford New Transit Workers Contract, Budget Watchdog Says

 TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen speaks to reporters about the new contract.
TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen speaks to reporters about the new contract.
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TWU Local 100

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — As transit workers cheer a tentative contract agreement that would give them higher wage increases than the MTA wanted, a budget watchdog group warns the contract could mean higher fare increases for riders.

The MTA raises fares by 4 percent every other year, for an average of 2 percent a year, in line with cost-of-living increases.

The transit authority wanted to increase workers' wages by that same cost-of-living increment, but the workers' union, TWU Local 100, argued that such an increase only allowed workers to live paycheck-to-paycheck, not to save money.

The contract that the workers and the MTA tentatively agreed upon on Monday includes a 2.5 percent wage increase to take effect on Jan. 15 of this year, and another 2.5 percent compounded increase on Feb. 15 of next year.

Workers who are still with the agency in March 2019 would also get a $500 cash bonus, according to the TWU. 

But according to the nonprofit, non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission, those increases could bode poorly for riders.

"New Yorkers should welcome the news of 28 months of labor peace on the subways and buses, but it comes at a price," the CBC said in a statement Tuesday. "The settlement is more generous than the MTA's financial plan provides and may require higher fare increases than planned or more borrowing to support the capital program."

Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure at the CBC, said his organization doesn't know exactly how much the wage increases will cost in total, but that the $500 bonuses alone would amount to some $19 million. 

Dague also took issue with the fact that the contract doesn't include work rules that could allow the MTA to schedule workers more effectively.

It remains to be seen the MTA will tweak their budget to make up for the contract, but Dague speculated it could take the form of higher-than-expected fare increases, changes in operations, or borrowing to cover capital costs.

The MTA had no comment on the CBC's criticism, other than to say that the the agreement will have no impact on the fare and toll proposals currently before the transit authority's board.

TWU Local opted to selectively take CBC's criticism as praise.

“The Citizens Budget Commission is correct. This is a very good contract, and transit workers deserve every ounce of economic gain in it," said TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen in a statement. "People in cushy high-rise offices aren’t the only ones who deserve to get ahead of inflation. We’re the ones out there on the front lines moving 8 million people a day. We are injured, assaulted, killed and sometimes flat out murdered on the job. This is a good and just contract for transit workers and our families.”

The contract includes a variety of factors aimed at meeting the goal of allowing transit workers to save money for their futures, such as the ability to cash out at least 50 percent of their unused sick days when they resign or retire, regardless of the number of sick days they have accrued.

Union officials said this could give workers more money to start their retirements.

And an unprecedented "Me Too" clause means that if Long Island Rail Road workers get bigger wage increases in their contract, the MTA has to put forward a matching increase in bus and subway workers' wages.

Other aspects of the contract include dental coverage for dependents up to 26 years old, better boots and shoes for workers who currently receive them from the MTA, a uniform cleaning allowance for station cleaners, promises to address concerns of female workers and to increase construction staff by at least 100 workers and a decrease in workday length for bus maintainers from 8.5 hours to 8 hours, with no loss in pay. 

TWU Local 100's executive board was voting on the contract Tuesday afternoon. The contract will then go to a vote by the union's members, likely within the coming weeks, union officials said.

The new contract expires on May 15, 2019.