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The MBTA’s smart moves

Commuters disembarked from shuttle buses at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) JFK/UMass stop on February 9, 2015.KAYANA SZYMCZAK/GETTY IMAGES

Since the MBTA’s weather-related failures in early 2015, fixing the agency has been a top priority for the Baker administration. To that end, Baker’s team pushed for and won new powers from the Legislature, and has drilled down on problems that have long plagued the agency.

One management move is designed to reduce MBTA employees’ heavy use of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which contributes to absenteeism, which in turn leads to dropped bus routes and drives up overtime costs. Another plan under consideration is outsourcing the T’s money-counting and warehouse operations. The inefficiency of the latter hinders the agency’s ability to make timely repairs.

All that has drawn squawks of protest, and now a formal grievance, from T unions. But the T should stay the course — and, if necessary, the Legislature should affirm T management’s authority to pursue necessary reforms.

The change that has particularly riled the Boston Carmen’s Union is this: An employee must use vacation time and paid sick days before taking time off under the FMLA, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. Formerly, T employees could use FMLA for early-in-the-year time off, while husbanding their vacation days for summer and stockpiling their sick time, which can be factored into pension calculations.

T managers credit that change with helping reduce absenteeism by 33 percent from last year. As a result, the percentage of dropped bus trips is down by 40 percent. All told, the T says, from January to May, 15,000 fewer workdays were lost to unscheduled absences. (That said, through the first five months of 2016, the T’s five-day FMLA usage — 13.3 percent — was still high compared to the executive branch of state government, at 7.5 percent.)


The improved service and decline in absenteeism illustrates the importance of reform. But keeping that reform may require some fortitude, given that it is the subject of a grievance filed by the carmen’s union. As the union itself acknowledges, T management has the right to make reasonable rules and regulations. However, the FMLA change is unreasonable and, further, wasn’t negotiated, the union insists.


Actually, given the previous abuse of the FMLA and the high of rates of absenteeism, the new policy seems eminently reasonable. Further, the T’s new requirement is consistent with federal law and properly falls under the T’s management rights.

If something as essential to efficient operation as the T’s new family leave policy gets overturned in arbitration, it will be a signal that the legislature needs to step in. For starters, lawmakers will have to make it clear, legislatively, that T management does indeed have the power to implement such a policy.

When it comes to the possible outsourcing of the money-counting and warehouse operations, the T has a clear right to request proposals from private firms to take over both functions. Although jobs in the warehouse facilities or the money-counting facility are highly coveted by T employees, neither of these is a core function of a transportation agency. The T’s warehouse operations, in particular, is an inefficient mess, according to a recent audit.

Until the T has some outside bids, it’s hard to know what the private-sector costs of performing those functions would be. But there’s certainly the potential to realize significant savings on operating costs, and, when it comes to the warehouse operations, to avoid the capital costs of upgrading the T’s facilities. What’s more, the very fact that the T is exploring those options has prompted the carmen’s union to put forward a cost-savings proposal of its own.

This all counts as meaningful progress by the Baker administration. Other elected officials should avoid the temptation to pander to those reluctant to see the T move into the modern era.