MBTA numbers do matter
Pollack is wrong; the figures are misleading
TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK this week defended the accuracy of the absenteeism numbers contained in the MBTA advisory panel‘s report, but she did so in a way that was odd for a manager in an administration that prides itself on data-driven policy analysis.
The advisory panel’s report, which provided the underpinning for the Baker administration’s call for reform legislation, said T employees miss an average of 57 working days a year and the absence rate across all positions is 11 to 12 percent – twice the level of peer agencies and four times the rate for the transportation industry as a whole.
“I categorically reject the charges that the panel’s numbers were not true,” said Pollack at a forum on the MBTA at Suffolk University.
Pollack is wrong. She may be able to explain how the numbers were derived, but there’s no question they were presented in a misleading way. As CommonWealth reported last week, the 57 days-off number contains vacation days and other types of leave that workers are entitled to and which they schedule in advance. Removing those types of leave, T workers take an average of 22.5 unscheduled days off each year, which is the real headache for an agency trying to make trains and buses run on time.
Here’s what Pollack said at Suffolk University:
“With all due respect to everyone who has spent an immense amount of time playing with the numbers, I categorically reject the charges that the panel’s numbers were not true. The panel’s numbers are accurate. We are in the process of putting together a set of FAQs, but let me just make two points and then I’ll get to the specifics.
Point number one: If they are not true, why is everyone afraid of a fiscal control board? The fiscal control board will dig into the numbers and if it turns out that capital spending is great and absenteeism is great, they can declare victory and go home. I think the fact that people are afraid of the fiscal control board tells me that they expect that board to find at least what the panel found, if not more.
Point number two on the numbers: 57 days is 57 days. It includes scheduled and unscheduled. You want to just look at unscheduled absenteeism, it’s 22 days. You want to fight about whether 9 percent of the workforce is out on any given day, 10 percent of the workforce is out on any given day, or 11 percent of the workforce is out on any given day? The T’s still trying to run a system with 1 in 10 of its workers not at work on any given day of the week.
And no one has actually taken a run at those numbers yet. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on those numbers today because, to me, the answer to the disputes over those numbers is the control board. Let them dig into the numbers. If those aren’t the problems, believe me, they’ll find other ones.”
Here is what Pollack is really saying: The numbers are accurate, but even if they aren’t accurate there’s no problem because the fiscal control board will investigate and uncover the correct numbers. Yet the numbers and the report in general were the impetus for the Baker administration’s legislation calling for a fiscal control board and other reforms. (Indeed, the Baker administration leaked to the press key elements of the report, including the absenteeism numbers, to maximize their impact.)The T advisory panel used the numbers to justify a fiscal control board. Now Pollack is saying that, if the numbers are wrong, the fiscal control board will correct them or find other problems to deal with. It’s a circular argument and a strange way of crafting policy.