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.
“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).
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.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.”