Is MBTA absenteeism really declining?
New agency figures show no clear progress on key objective
MBTA officials regularly report they are reining in rampant worker absenteeism, but the progress they report is largely an illusion created by making comparisons to 2015, when severe winter weather brought the system to a standstill. When absenteeism rates are compared to earlier years, there has been little or no improvement.
Data obtained under a public records request show the rate of unscheduled absences at 7.8 percent for the first nine months of 2016. This is identical to the 7.8 percent rate for fiscal year 2013, and a modest improvement from fiscal 2014, when the rate was 8.6 percent. Another frequently cited statistic, unscheduled absences among transportation operators, a subset of T employees, also showed no improvement when comparing fiscal year 2016 to the earlier years.
The Baker administration’s review of the MBTA following the historic 2015 snowstorms identified employee absenteeism as a key area for reform of the agency. The initial PowerPoint report by the review panel called excessive absenteeism “a prominent example of weak MBTA management,” and recommended the MBTA “develop a plan to substantially reduce absenteeism.”
When looking at the data over the last few years, there is little evidence of such reductions. More than a year after new leadership took over running the MBTA, employees appear to be missing just as much work as they did before.
Though the comparisons are dubious, they have been a regular feature of MBTA leadership presentations, with the latest dated November 29. The comparisons have persuaded some observers that real progress is afoot. A July Boston Globe editorial repeated the statistics on improvement since 2015, and said, “The improved service and decline in absenteeism illustrates the importance of reform.” A Globe article later questioned the value of these very same comparisons, but the MBTA has continued to use them.
Misleading absenteeism figures from the MBTA are not a new phenomenon. The initial T review following the epic 2015 snowfall was chock full of dubious statistics, starting with the overall rate of 11 to 12 percent absenteeism. Supporting data was made available later, which cast doubt on the initial figures. Without rehashing the details, which CommonWealth previously reported, the MBTA eventually issued new numbers with more detail on how they were generated. These revised calculations pegged total unscheduled absences at 22.5 days per year for each employee, or 8.6 percent of the 261 available workdays, a revision from the initial 11 to 12 percent estimate.
Using the same method the MBTA eventually settled on yields the 7.8 percent absenteeism rate for 2013, which is identical to the unscheduled absence rate for the first nine months of 2016. In short, there is no evidence that the MBTA management’s efforts have resulted in progress on overall absenteeism, which the initial review identified as critical.
Adding to the challenge of assessing improvement, the MBTA has not been forthcoming with facts and figures about absenteeism beyond their tightly controlled slides and presentations, for which supporting data is rarely available. They have stonewalled requests for additional data on absenteeism and other employment issues from multiple local media outlets, leading Boston magazine to declare in a recent headline, “The MBTA Doesn’t Want You to Know Anything About Absenteeism.”
Obtaining current data on absenteeism came only after months of emails, tweets, and three public records requests. The public records requests took, respectively, 16, 30, and 49 days to receive responses, which are legally mandated in 10 days. The agency only sent the data in response to the final request after the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office ordered them to do so in a letter. T officials say data retrieval has been hindered by lack of staff to handle such requests, but they said the situation should improve with two additional employees undergoing training.
There is some imprecision in year-to-year comparisons, since the MBTA has changed the way it categorizes absences, and regrouped some employees into new categories. But stripping it down to the basic question of the frequency of what the MBTA calls unscheduled absences, the rates do not clearly show any improvement compared to fiscal 2014 and 2013.
In an email, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo questioned the idea of comparing this year’s numbers with 2013 and 2014, saying, “equating recent data with that of 2013 and 2014 is not an apples-to-apples comparison because the Massachusetts sick leave law didn’t exist in 2013/2014. The 2013/14 rates would have been higher, by at least 2.5 days per transportation operator (a conservative estimate based on historical usage patterns).”