Dear MBTA Operators: Do Your Share, Show Up to Work

You can’t trust the T. Anyone who has lived in the Greater Boston Area for more than a few months knows this as a fact of life — we’ve all heard horror stories about terrible MBTA service, from broken trains to canceled trips, and practically everything in between. And although the roots of these service problems aren’t always so easy to pinpoint, the agency has often said that the problem of employee absenteeism is one of the primary causes, resulting in tens of thousands of dropped and delayed trips each year. To put it simply: when drivers don’t show, the T can’t go.

According to new MBTA agency data, released last week in a report by The Boston Herald, driver absenteeism is still a major problem, with bus and train operators are taking unscheduled absences from work a whopping two out of every twenty days (10% of the time). That’s like calling out of work every other Friday for the entire year. These absences also result in unnecessary overtime expenditures — in the first two months of 2016, the MBTA spent a reported $119,000 per day in overtime pay to employees, many of whom were working extra hours simply to cover for coworkers who weren’t showing up for their shifts. In this day and age, such poor employee practices really should be unacceptable.

The above statistic would be bad enough on its own, if it wasn’t for the fact that these numbers are actually being portrayed as a sign of gradual improvement for the MBTA. “Our unscheduled absenteeism rate has dropped from what was close to 13 percent back in fiscal ’15 to just over 10 percent in fiscal ’17,” said MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve in the Herald report. It’s sad but true — a quick search online reveals that the MBTA has a long and troubled history with absenteeism among its employees, with the issue coming into focus more prominently in the past two years. In fact, in April 2015 an Authority-appointed panel published a report which found that MBTA employees take off an average of 57 days out of the year (this number includes both scheduled absences, such as vacation days and jury duty, as well as the previously-reported unscheduled absences). The same report highlighted that this absentee rate is approximately twice that of comparable transportation systems in similar major U.S. cities.

Looking at all of these numbers and statistics, it’s evident that anyone who relies on and financially supports the T should be up in arms with these practices. Yes, there is some gradual progress being made, but why can’t the MBTA get their act together, and why aren’t MBTA employees showing up to work? When the T is running slow, it’s far too easy for Bostonians to just curse out the largely-faceless government organization and chalk it all up to bad timing, but the truth is that there really are specific policies and parties to blame in this system.

President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 into law less than three weeks into his first term. The bill requires employers to provide unscheduled unpaid time off to qualified employees with personal or family medical emergencies, for up to 12 weeks out of the year. Although few people would argue that the FMLA is inherently a bad law (the bill also prevents employers from firing employees for taking these needed days off), it does have a reputation for being notoriously easy to take advantage of, according to former MBTA bus superintendent Carrie Dubose. “When the FMLA got approved, they felt like they had a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.” Roughly 65 percent of MBTA subway operators have been approved for FMLA protection, and there is reportedly very little administrative oversight into how these protected days off are actually being used.

MBTA officials have often tried criticizing this culture of apparent FMLA abuse in the past, but are always countered with passionate defenses from members of the Boston Carmen’s Union, the organization that represents most T operators. The union argues that getting doctors sign off on FMLA forms is no simple task, and that, in the past, workers were actually encouraged to sign up for FMLA protection. “There’s no other place that has the amount of people that are on FMLA than the MBTA and that is because management encouraged you, provided you the application and told you to apply for it,” said Union representative Jim O’Brien. However, O’Brien has also acknowledged that there are indeed many T operators who abuse the FMLA as well, an issue which he blames on MBTA management. ““They never policed it. They just let it run rampant.”

Although this is certainly a nuanced issue, there seem to be a few simple steps that the MBTA could take to cut down on unscheduled absenteeism — Better employer-employee relations, stronger management, and smarter enforcement of FMLA protection would all go a long way in making sure that the T arrives on time. The current system allows for too many abuses and days off, and the T only works when its employees do. Despite an unusually warm October, winter will be hitting Boston soon enough, and no one wants to be left out in the cold while their T driver is at home taking an unscheduled day off.

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