T made little progress reducing absenteeism in 2016

T made little progress reducing absenteeism in 2016

Officials hope get-tough policy will lead to improvement in 2017

MBTA OFFICIALS MADE ALMOST NO PROGRESS last year in curbing employee absenteeism, in part because success in reducing one type of absence was offset by a surge in another area. T officials likened the situation to the whack-a-mole game, where you pound one area down and another pops up.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrative officer and acting general manager, said the unscheduled absence rate among transportation operators was 10.6 percent in 2016, down only slightly from 11 percent in 2015. In fiscal year 2014, which ran from July 2013 through June 2014, the rate was 10.9 percent. The rate for all T employees was 7.8 percent in 2016, barely changed from recent years. The figures showing absenteeism as basically flat contrast sharply with the assessments offered during the first half of 2016, which described absenteeism as declining sharply.

Shortsleeve said he is optimistic the situation will improve in 2017 because procedures are now fully in place to limit unscheduled absences and officials are aggressively dealing with repeat offenders. For example, T officials said 872 employees, representing roughly 13 percent of the T’s workforce, are currently on some level of a five-step disciplinary track for attendance violations. They said 27 workers are scheduled to be terminated in the first quarter of this year for violations of the attendance policy, three more than were terminated all of last year.

The T is also analyzing workplace data to identify patterns in unscheduled absences that need to be addressed. For example, unscheduled absences for sick time and under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) declined last year, but the decline was offset by a 60 percent increase in approved accommodation leaves under the American Disability Act.

The T has also analyzed when employees take FMLA absences and discovered a surge in July and August, particularly on Fridays during those two months. The data show transportation operators used a daily average of 100 FMLA days on Fridays in July and 108 on Fridays in August, well above the daily average of 68 the rest of the year.

“I think when you see usage of a leave of FMLA 50 percent higher on Fridays in July and August, it tells you we continue to have patterns here and abuse of the system,” Shortsleeve said.

James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, couldn’t be reached for an interview but his office issued a statement supporting efforts to decreased unwarranted absences. “We have always agreed that these issues need to be addressed in order to improve service for our riders and we are pleased to see that there has been a significant decrease of FMLA use by Carmen’s Union members,” he said.

In April 2015, a special MBTA panel appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker highlighted excessive absenteeism as “a prominent example of weak management.” Although many of the numbers cited by the panel were later debunked, T management kept the problem in their sights and repeatedly claimed to be making progress.

Shortsleeve, at several briefings during 2016 before the T Fiscal and Management Control Board, cited progress. In June 2016, for example, he said unscheduled absences among transportation operators were down 33 percent through May compared to the year before. In July, Baker held a press conference where he noted absenteeism among transportation operators was down 23 percent through the first six months of the year compared to all of fiscal 2015 (July 2014 through June 2015).

T officials continued to cite progress on absenteeism through the fall of 2016 even though the improving numbers used as a baseline 2015, when records levels of snow brought the transit authority to a standstill and skewed absenteeism rates.

On Thursday, Shortsleeve released numbers for all of 2016 indicating absenteeism remains a problem of roughly the same magnitude as when the Fiscal and Management Control Board assumed oversight of the agency.

Unscheduled absences under FMLA did fall, largely because the number of employees with FMLA certification declined. In September 2015, 45 percent of Carmen’s Union employees had FMLA certification; by the end of 2016 that number had fallen to 27 percent. The 27 percent figure is still higher than the overall MBTA number (18 percent) and the number for the state Department of Transportation (7 percent).

Even as FMLA declined, however,  there was a surge in unscheduled absences for approved accommodation leaves under the American Disability Act. Janice Brochu, the T’s chief human resources officer, said her office is investigating the cause of the increase, and has made no determination about whether the absences are warranted.

But Brochu did agree that the T’s efforts to combat absenteeism have been a lot like the whack-a-mole game, where just as soon as one issue is addressed another pops up. “I’ve actually explained it that way,” she said. “When we get control of the ADA situation, I don’t think there’s anywhere else for these issues to go. It’s hard to go elsewhere.”

Vincent Reina, director of employee availability at the T, said the MBTA’s struggle with unscheduled absences is not unique among the nation’s transportation agencies, contradicting one of the conclusions of the governor’s special panel on the T. “There is a problem in transit as a whole nationwide with FMLA usage,” he said. “It is not unique to the MBTA.”

T officials are optimistic that 2017 will bring greater improvement on absenteeism, in part because policies and practices begun in 2016 will be fully implemented in 2017. The T has a new human resources management team in place, headed by Brochu, who was hired in August.  A company called WorkPartners is now handling calls from employees who are taking unscheduled absences, easing the burden on supervisors and allowing the agency to gather detailed information about the absence. The T also negotiated an agreement with the Carmen’s Union that ended a grievance against the T’s absenteeism policies and limited access to overtime in any week in which a worker takes an unscheduled absence.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Meet the Author

Steve Koczela

President, MassINC Polling Group

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Brochu said she believes the absenteeism numbers can be brought down, which would help limit the number of dropped bus trips and reduce the need for overtime. “I really feel as though this can be reduced with active management,” she said.

Shortsleeve declined to name a target for the T’s absenteeism rate, but said he wanted to see continuous improvement quarter by quarter. “It’s important for the organization,” he said. “We want to create an environment where attendance is valued.”

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Essentially the Governor’s oversight panel didn’t use real facts or come to honest conclusions on the MBTA’s operations. The MBTA still has no full-time general manager. The MBTA is getting so fragmented there’s a company counting money, a company handling parts inventory, a company running the commuter rail, a company handling calls from employees taking unscheduled absences and who knows how many other companies are inside the MBTA’s workings. I’m sick and tired of reading about the MBTA and its financial difficulties but I just can’t stop myself from reading about the MBTA…it’s like watching a slow motion train wreck…I cannot simply turn away.

  • disqus_610343

    Attendance is valued????? . Well people would want to come to work if the managers weren’t horrible or incompetent. You choose. If the place rewarded those that actually showed up and punished only the ones that repeatedly abused the system. So instead they implement across the board and take it out on everybody. Sounds fair. Sounds like military discipline to me