Crunching the T’s numbers
In early April, the Boston Globe splashed a report across its front page about excessive absenteeism at the MBTA. Citing pages in a soon-to-be-released report from an advisory panel appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, the Globe reported that T workers are off the job an average of 57 days a year and their overall absence rate of 11 to 12 percent is twice the level found at peer agencies around the country.
On Tuesday, the Globe began walking back its earlier story. The newspaper’s front-page report questioned the relevance of the 57 days-off number and said the peer group comparison was misleading. The story quotes Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns served by the T. Regan said the Baker advisory panel’s report raised a number of serious issues facing the T but tended to overstate each of them.
Questions about the absenteeism numbers were first raised in late April by MassINC pollster Steve Koczela in an article for CommonWealth magazine (which the Globe refers to as an unnamed blog). When state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack insisted at a public event that the numbers were accurate, CommonWealth responded with an article pointing out that she was wrong.
The problem for the Baker administration is that no one has ever publicly explained how the numbers were derived. It’s a problem because even within the administration there are disputes about which numbers are the best to use.
After the release of the Baker advisory panel’s report, state transportation officials released data showing the average T worker takes 22.5 unscheduled days off a year. That’s more than four work weeks a year. It’s also the number that should have been highlighted in the report.
The 11-12 percent absence rate cited in the advisory panel’s report was also never fully explained. State transportation officials said it was calculated by dividing 22.5 by 204, with 204 derived by subtracting 57 (total days-off) from 261 (total work days in a year). Koczela, in his article, suggested the 204 number was inaccurate and misleading.
The T advisory panel, in a letter to CommonWealth, also said the 204 number cited by state transportation officials was incorrect. The members of the advisory panel said they used 230. To reach the 11-12 percent figure, the advisory panel members divided 26 (their number for unscheduled days-off) by 230. Baker administration officials later revised downward the unscheduled days-off number from 26 to 22.5.
The numbers get confusing, but the bottom line is that the Baker administration should set the record straight on which numbers are being used and why. The T is grappling with a host of problems, but they can only be addressed if they are stated clearly.
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