Hoping to reduce absenteeism within the MBTA, transit officials have begun looking at the roots of the problem, making human resources hires and are 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 T overseers 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, former deputy treasurer to Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, told the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board.
Saintcyr said the MBTA has worked with the Boston-based law firm Morgan, Brown and Joy, and have 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.
MBTA Senior Director of Human Resources Paul Andruszkiewicz told the control board that filling in for 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.
With 6,479 MBTA employees in fiscal 2015, up from 6,282 in fiscal 2014, the T could have all its positions filled in two years if hiring continues to outpace attrition by about 200, Andruszkiewicz said.
“They’re definitely short hundreds in transportation,” Boston Carmen’s Union President James O’Brien told the News Service. 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 told the News Service. 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 told the News Service the first missed day, late arrival or unsubstantiated sick day of the year results in a warning and then penalties escalate to 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.