Metro

MBTA system strained by worker absences, report finds

T workers out 57 days of year

An MBTA bus was stuck in a snowbank during a storm in February, one of several storms throughout the winter.
DOMINICK REUTER/REUTERS
An MBTA bus was stuck in a snowbank during a storm in February, one of several storms throughout the winter.

Unscheduled absences by employees of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority resulted in the cancellation of more than 6,400 bus trips in January and February, a panel appointed to assess T management has found.

The panel, convened by Governor Charlie Baker as the MBTA struggled to recover from a series of heavy snowstorms, found that T workers were absent 11 to 12 percent of the time in 2014, roughly twice the rate reported by transit systems in other major US cities.

Overall, T employees are out of work for an average of 57 days per year, the report found. Those numbers include vacation days, as well as categories such as jury duty, sick leave, injuries, and family medical leave.

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In the report, the panel attributes what it calls “excessive absenteeism” at the T to “weak MBTA management.”

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As a result, “tens of thousands of trips are canceled each year due to unplanned absences,” according to a draft portion of a report obtained by the Globe.

Baker asked the panel to lay out the deficiencies in the way the T is run and financed, and recommend solutions, after the snow crippled dozens of subway cars and commuter rail locomotives. Another portion of the report obtained by the Globe cites as recurring problems “limited cost control, low labor productivity, and high maintenance costs” and suggested that the Legislature not increase its budget.

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration will discuss the recommendations at length when the report is released.

James O’Brien, the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, called the numbers “distorted” because they combine so many categories of absences. Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T, declined to comment on the report.

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The report cites T personnel policies for “a shortage of workers, dropped trips, and poor customer service.”

T leadership, the report says, allows workers to abuse the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off for certain serious conditions, or to take care of a sick family member.

Some 30 percent of MBTA employees, including 65 percent of its subway drivers, have received approval to use the family leave provisions. The report called the use of the provisions by such a significant portion of the workforce “disruptive to productivity.”

According to the report, family and medical leave absences were responsible for the majority of the dropped bus trips in January and February 2015, the height of the transit crisis. In January, those absences resulted in 692 canceled bus trips; in February, the number skyrocketed to 2,389 cancellations.

Another 1,049 trips in February were canceled when the drivers took regular sick days, and 1,465 more trips were canceled due to what the report referred to as “no show.”

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The number of trips canceled because of absences far outstripped the number of cancellations caused by the weather at the height of the winter’s fury, according to a report expected to be released this week. By comparison, 600 trips were canceled because of the weather, according to the report, which gathered its statistics from the MBTA advisory board.

The report did not provide the overall percentage of bus trips canceled in January and February.

The panel compared the T’s practices to those of major systems such as Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. According to the report, these agencies have reported absence rates between 5 and 6 percent.

At the MBTA, workers miss about 11 to 12 percent of the work year.

The numbers are even higher for categories of certain workers. For example, part-time subway drivers and train attendants missed about 19 percent of the year in 2014, and full-time drivers and train attendants missed about 15 percent.

The figures released on Monday do not include how many days commuter rail employees were absent. The T contracts out operation of that service to Keolis Commuter Services, the Boston branch of a French transport company.

The reaction to portions of the report have been mixed. Greg Sullivan, the research director of the Pioneer Institute, has said he is encouraged that the panel is exposing inefficiencies at the T.

But some transit advocates have been disappointed with the group’s focus on managerial problems in the portions released so far.

Frederick Salvucci, a former transportation secretary, said failing to tackle the T’s debt and revenue issues would be a huge mistake for the panel.

“If you don’t deal with the fundamental problem of the flaw in funding the T that has led to the current situation, then the rest of it is noise,” he said.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.