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A distant crisis: Top MBTA managers live hundreds — or thousands — of miles from the troubled system they’re trying to fix

Chicago and South Florida among the places T executives call home

Commuters waited for a Red Line train at the MBTA Park Street station. While many T employees work in Boston every day, some top managers do not.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

You’d never suspect this group was managing the public transportation system for Greater Boston.

The T’s chief safety officer owns a house near Chicago, where his wife works — and he is registered to vote. The T’s chief of capital projects rarely came to Boston before he was fired last month, instead attending meetings remotely from his homes in Wisconsin, Delaware, and Hawaii. Meanwhile, last year his chief of staff bought a house in Florida, where she lives with her husband.

The MBTA is facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence in its service, punctuated by slow trains, endless delays, and gruesome accidents. Yet, many top T managers live far from the troubled system they’re trying to rescue and some are rarely seen in person by their employees. A Globe review has found that six senior managers have a primary residence more than 100 miles from the nearest T station — and some much farther.

Now, as new general manager Phillip Eng faces the daunting task of getting the system back on track, some T officials are examining whether the “work from home” trend at the agency may have gone too far.

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Last week, three senior managers and a more junior employee were told they need to show up for work at MBTA offices at least three times a week, starting immediately, or find employment elsewhere, according to a state transportation official briefed on the situation.

The official didn’t name the individuals, but provided their job titles. All are managers in the capital program, the group overseeing the T’s vast modernization program. It was run by James “Jay” Neider, who made $275,000 a year even though he rarely came to Boston — and was fired last month without explanation. Within weeks, Neider’s LinkedIn page reported that he had taken a new job at Parsons Corp. in Wisconsin.

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Two of the three who were told to work in Boston more frequently are Neider’s chief of staff, Karli Del Rossi, who owns a house in Bonita Springs, Fla., and Neider’s deputy, Charles Thorn, who lives in Maywood, N.J., public records show. Del Rossi did not respond to requests for comment while Thorn referred questions to the MBTA.

The third senior manager ordered to work regularly in Boston, Maysoon Tawfik, owns a house in New York, according to public records. She once led the long-delayed and troubled overhaul of the Red and Orange Lines until she was named chief of capital programs strategy and innovations in 2022. In an interview, she said it wouldn’t be a problem to work regularly in Boston since she has relatives in the area and can stay with them.

Del Rossi, the lowest paid of the group, makes $146,000. Thorn and Tawfik each make more than $230,000 a year.

In an interview with the Globe, new general manager Eng said he plans to review the agency’s remote work policy. He acknowledged that remote work can be productive, but said there’s no substitute for direct contact among T leadership and hands-on management of staff.

“We’re in a business of 24/7 operations,” Eng said. “There is an importance about face-to-face discussions, meetings not only internally, but for our staff to see that we’re present as well with third parties doing work and the vendors and the manufacturers that we rely on.”

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The trend toward senior T managers working remotely took hold during the pandemic, beginning in March 2020 when millions of Americans worked from home to avoid COVID. Several managers who live far from Boston were hired during the pandemic and not required to move, while Del Rossi, formerly a Massachusetts resident, last year bought a house in South Florida where her husband works.

Former general manager Steve Poftak approved the telework policy, which allowed key personnel to work basically anywhere. The policy allowed employees whose duties could be performed remotely to do so with the permission of their supervisor, and by signing a “telework acknowledgement” form. But the policy was not ratcheted back as the pandemic crisis waned, requiring only an annual review of paperwork.

There’s no evidence that the long-distance managers are violating the T’s policy.

Poftak, who left in early January, hung up when asked about his position on remote work, referring a reporter to an MBTA spokesman.

The managers all appear to live outside of the MBTA service area and most have homes in other states altogether. However, one or more managers — including safety chief Ronald Ester Jr. — live at least part of the time in Massachusetts.

Some workers who show up every day at T headquarters in Park Plaza and Kneeland Street said that the absence of key managers has hurt morale in an organization already struggling with high turnover and difficulty filling jobs. T staffers were particularly critical of the capital projects leadership, charged with modernizing the ancient train and bus system.

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“Capital projects has people who are rarely here to do the job they are required to do. It sends a message to those who are here that being present is a ‘like to have,’ but not a ‘must have’ quality,” said one MBTA employee, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.

T employees also criticized the leader of the safety department — Ester — who they say spends significant time in Chicago.

The T has had a string of safety crises in recent years, from derailments to a train that caught fire with passengers aboard to a passenger dragged to his death when his arm got caught in the doors of a Red Line car. But, sometimes, chief safety officer Ester was not at T offices, workers said.

Ester said he works consistently in the MBTA offices and considers himself a Massachusetts resident. He said he rarely works remotely except when he attends a meeting during approved time off.

Ester, whose annual salary is $257,000, came to the T in August 2020, after more that 30 years at the Chicago Transit Authority, according to his LinkedIn page. He bought a house in Hanover, but his wife still works in Chicago and several MBTA employees said he spends a lot of time there. Public records also show he is registered to vote there.

James Rooney, who served as the MBTA’s acting general manager in the early 1990s, said remote work makes sense for certain jobs, such as those in accounting or marketing, but “anyone involved in service delivery, project management, construction — all of those jobs should be in person. There should be no exceptions.

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”You’re talking about an organization in crisis,” continued Rooney. “As you think about it, a safety position, for example, for a person not being on the job physically is outrageous. There is no way you can expect that person can do his or her job.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo released a statement Tuesday stressing that the agency is reviewing its remote work policy and “balancing the needs of in-person work with remote work. Maintaining safe, reliable transportation is the T’s number one priority and employee schedules must be designed to best serve operational and customer needs.”

Some top MBTA managers say they come to work every day, even though their residence is more than 100 miles away.

David Panagore, the chief administrative officer who earns more than $275,000 a year, is a resident of Provincetown, where, according to records, he voted in town elections this year, and was formerly its town manager. Without traffic, the drive from Provincetown to Boston takes two and a half hours; ferry service is faster, but doesn’t run in the winter.

“I commute every day,” he told the Globe, a roundtrip that would take at least five hours if he drove from Provincetown. He would not say whether he commuted from Provincetown or had access to a second place closer to the city, referring questions to Pesaturo.

In a Cape Cod Times article that appeared when he accepted the job in 2019, he said he wasn’t going to move: “While my employment will change, my commitment to this community has not, as my residency, voting and participation will not.”

There may be one more cost to reliance on managers who don’t live near Boston: local knowledge, including knowledge of the transportation system they’re running.

Neider, the former chief of capital programs and the second highest paid employee of the MBTA, ran into a co-worker and her friend at the food court at Park Plaza in 2019. The friend told Neider she’d just moved to Cambridge and was riding the Red Line from Porter Square.

“Where’s Porter Square?” Neider asked, according to the employee, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that three MBTA managers live primarily in homes far from the T’s service area. Dennis Lytton, the deputy safety chief, has an apartment in Brighton and says he has not worked remotely since starting the job in February. Michele Stiehler, the T’s chief of paratransit, lives in Boston and walks to work. Jennifer Tabakin, who oversees the T’s South Coast Rail project, also has a home in Boston within walking distance of T headquarters. In addition, the story incorrectly reported that Ronald Ester’s “primary residence” is in Chicago; Ester said he considers his home in Massachusetts as his primary residence.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.