MBTA absenteeism effects everything from repairs to street-level service. The fact that the governor's team and the union have at least agreed on the broad contours of the problem is a vital step toward solving it.

Credit: Ibby Caputo / WGBH

MBTA Union And Baker's T Managers Agree On At Least One Thing: Leave Policy Is A Mess

January 8, 2016

One of the many problems the MBTA is trying to solve is the misuse and mismanagement of a critical leave program that's lead to rampant cost overruns for the agency.

Absenteeism among MBTA workers was one of the factors T managers cited to explain last winter's transit failures. When subway or bus drivers call in sick or take formal leave days, their shifts either don't get covered or cost the T in overtime.

MBTA financial managers under Baker, lead by new Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, is now trying to correct years of mismanagement of a program that allows time off to care for personal or family health issues. For years, the T didn't properly keep track of employees using the Family Medical Leave program and it became a convenient catch-all for workers needing time off without facing discipline.

Jim O'Brien from the Carmen's Union says MBTA managers actually encouraged workers to utilize the program after the T stopped accepting doctors' notes ten years ago.

"They never policed it. They just let it run rampant," O'Brien told WGBH News.

The Carmen's Union agrees that T managers need to get control of the program and support new efforts to hire outside contractors to manage it.

"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," because FMLA was considered a "protected absence" that wouldn't harm an employee's record, O'Brien said. "So now what you have, instead of accepting a doctors' note for three days, what employees would do is they'd apply for FMLA," O'Brien said.

"We've got to reduce absenteeism. We've got to get people back to work," Shortsleeve told WGBH News in an interview.

The T plans to add new training programs for employees on how and when to properly use the FMLA and starting this month, MBTA HR will use new policies to manage leaves. Eventually, an outside contractor will administer the program and operate a call center employees will use before leave is authorized.

The T's report states its goal is to move "from a minimally-resourced FMLA administrative process to a fully-resourced, compliant, fair, and consistent FMLA process" that adheres to federal guidelines for the law.

"For us to get our arms around the cost, and also the productivity, and making sure we don't miss trips and the experience of the riders, which is always where we focus. What we care about is making the system work better for the riders," Shortsleeve said.

O'Brien said the MBTA is the state's most diverse agency and employs a greater than average number of single parents that may need to utilize leave days to care for their children. The vast majority of FMLA time taken, O'Brien said, is for legitimate reasons under the federal law.

"If you're a single parent and your child gets sick or ill, that's what the FMLA is used for," O'Brien said.

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