T begins targeting absenteeism rate

2% of trips dropped; two-thirds due to operator absence

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

HOPING TO REDUCE ABSENTEEISM at the MBTA, transit officials have begun looking at the roots of the problem and making human resources hires. They are also considering bringing in an outside manager.

From January through August of this year, the MBTA dropped 34,702 trips, or close to 2 percent of the 1.8 million trips scheduled, Jessie Saintcyr, chief administrative officer at the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, told members of the T Fiscal and Management Control on Monday. Operator absence accounted for 68.7 percent of the dropped trips.

“We developed and implemented a process to track long-term employee absences,” Saintcyr told the board.

Saintcyr said the MBTA has worked with the Boston-based law firm Morgan, Brown and Joy, and issued a request for information about potentially bringing in an outside manager. She said she has also started the hiring process for a leave-management position that has been vacant for two years.

[The T’s rate of absenteeism was highlighted in a report prepared earlier this year for Gov. Charlie Baker by an advisory commission. That report used numbers that were later changed after questions were raised about them, but that didn’t change the fact that the T faced an absenteeism problem.]

Paul Andruszkiewicz, the T’s senior director of human resources, told the control board that dealing with absences by scheduling other employees for overtime rather than making new hires is cost-effective for about 98 days.

“If they’re being overworked, the customer service aspect is going to come down as well,” Andruszkiewicz said. He said prior-year hiring freezes and the time-consuming process of hand-entering data from employee applications, which has been updated, delayed new hiring. The T employed 6,479 employees in fiscal 2015, up from 6,282 in fiscal 2014.

“They’re definitely short hundreds in transportation,” Boston Carmen’s Union President James O’Brien said. O’Brien said better procedures for shifting work schedules on the fly, additional hires, and better management of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) would all be improvements.

“I would support the authority tightening up their FMLA,” O’Brien said. He said a “small percentage” of T employees take advantage of the act.

The federal law allows employees with a major medical problem to become certified to miss up to 12 weeks of work, Saintcyr said. FMLA accounts for 47 percent of the unscheduled absences from January through August of 2015, she said.

“We have a strict attendance policy, and if you are late, unfortunately, there are repercussions,” Saintcyr told the board. “And because of those repercussions we have seen a trend in the use and overuse of the FMLA leave policy.”

Agreeing that the policy is “strict,” Andruszkiewicz said the first missed day, late arrival, or unsubstantiated sick day of the year results in a warning and then penalties escalate to include suspensions.

Unscheduled absences cost the MBTA $7 million in overtime in fiscal 2015, while vacancies cost the authority $4 million and scheduled absences cost $3 million, according to Saintcyr. Weather, the biggest overtime driver in fiscal 2015, accounted for $12 million in agency spending.