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MBTA union files grievance over new attendance policy

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority tightened its attendance policy on Jan. 1.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority tightened its attendance policy on Jan. 1.Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

The MBTA, perennially cash-strapped and under pressure to improve performance, has held up its new attendance policy as a success that has led to a sharp drop in unexcused absences and missed bus trips.

But the T’s largest union remains unswayed and has filed a formal grievance arguing that the changes are unreasonable and violate the workers’ collective bargaining agreement.

“The Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, fully supports a stronger attendance policy, but this new policy was unilaterally crafted by MBTA management, and has multiple problems,” said James M. O’Brien, president of the union, which represents more than 4,100 T employees.

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The protest is the latest dispute to emerge between the union, which says it is trying to protect workers’ rights, and transit managers appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, who say they are trying to cut costs and improve service.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority tightened its attendance policy on Jan. 1 after a Baker-appointed panel found last year 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. In many cases, employees were tapping into the 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed them under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

The panel, which Baker convened as the T struggled to recover from a series of massive snowstorms, blamed the “excessive absenteeism” on “weak MBTA management” and said “tens of thousands of trips are canceled each year due to unplanned absences.”

The T argues that since the new attendance policy was put in place, absenteeism among bus operators has fallen 34 percent below last year’s average and the average number of dropped trips per day on buses fell 40 percent between January and April of this year.

All told, the agency says, 14,000 fewer work days were lost to unscheduled absences through April, compared to last year.

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“The MBTA is turning a corner and the new rules are having a positive impact on productivity and customer service,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator. “We are reducing absenteeism, resulting in fewer dropped trips and creating an atmosphere where good attendance is valued. We are disappointed by any attempts to weaken this policy, which is consistent with state and federal law.”

The new attendance policy is one of several contentious changes made by T managers that have rankled the Carmen’s Union. In February, the union decried the T’s move to privatize several departments, which could eliminate about 250 jobs.

And last year, the union threatened to sue the state or petition the federal government to cut off millions of dollars in aid for the T if state lawmakers approved the governor’s proposal to give a Baker-appointed board final approval of labor contracts. The union argued that the plan ran afoul of a federal law designed to protect the collective bargaining rights of public transit employees.

In its latest protest, the union is objecting to a new policy that requires employees to use vacation and earned sick time before they can take family leave, which gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid days a year to take care of a serious illness, new child, or sick family member.

Managers made the change after the Baker-appointed panel reported last year that about 30 percent of T employees, including 65 percent of subway drivers, had received approval to use the family leave law.

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The board said that rate of family and medical leave taken was “disruptive to productivity.”

But the union says the new policy cracking down on the practice goes “well beyond the scope of management rights” and must be negotiated with the union.

“The reason for our grievance is pretty simple: changes to contracts agreed to through collective bargaining must respect the legal process of contract negotiations,” O’Brien said.

The union also objected to a change that requires employees to give two hours’ notice, instead of one, when they are going to be absent.

The union says two hours’ notice is not fair to workers who encounter last-minute problems, like bad weather, car accidents, or an illness in the family. The union also says many T employees wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. for early shifts, and that it is not reasonable to expect then to wake up even earlier if they have to call in absent.

The Carmen’s Union had initially filed a grievance when the attendance changes were first proposed in December. O’Brien said the union then suspended its grievance because it hoped to negotiate cooperatively with management. But last Friday, he said, the union “moved the grievance forward because of MBTA management’s refusal to negotiate a more equitable policy.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@mlevenson.

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