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Task Force Sees 'Excessive Absenteeism' At MBTA

Unscheduled absences of MBTA employees contributed to the cancellation of more than 6,400 bus trips during January and February, according to an excerpted draft of the governor's task force report that cited "excessive absenteeism" as an example of "weak" management at the transit agency.

A section of the report, provided to the News Service by an administration official, found that 15 percent of all MBTA employees took at least one day of paid leave during a stretch this winter when the agency was struggling to maintain and restore services disrupted by repeated winter storms.

Absenteeism, according to the report, has led to substantial overtime costs at the MBTA, which is currently worked on a voluntary basis resulting in shortages of workers, cancelled trips and poor customer service.

Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year convened a task force of transportation experts to look at the governance, operations and finances of the MBTA in the wake of service failures resulting from record snowfall in late January and February. The full report is expected to be released later this week, but snippets have been released by the administration.

The MBTA posted an average rate of absenteeism of 11 percent to 12 percent in fiscal 2014, more than twice as high as peer transit agencies around the country with average rates of 5 percent to 6 percent across all employee groups.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, absenteeism in the transportation industry as a whole averages 3 percent.

The average MBTA employee misses 57 days of work a year, including paid vacation days, the report finds. Thirty percent of the workforce is certified to take paid unscheduled, intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, creating a situation the task force found to be "disruptive to productivity."

"The MBTA must fight abuses of FMLA, worker's compensation, and other types of leave. As other private and public sector employers frequently do, the MBTA should seek third-party assistance to manage this liability," the report's authors wrote.

Among the bus trips lost this winter due to absenteeism, the report finds that 1,981 weekday trips were dropping in January and February due to employees simply not showing up to work, while 1,387 lost trips were due to operators calling in sick.

In February alone, MBTA employees taking unscheduled days off under the Family and Medical Leave Act resulted in 2,389 lost weekday bus trips.

Baker told reporters Monday afternoon that he looked forward to having a "robust conversation" with the public, lawmakers and stakeholders once the full report is released and available for review.

"One of the things they incorporated into the report, which I think is terrific, is they benchmarked our system against some others. It's always nice to know how you're doing relative to the way others are performing and I think the report itself is a very strong document," Baker said.

Earlier in the day, another section of the report previewed by the administration found that the MBTA's unsustainable operating budget is hamstrung by "stagnating" revenues, costs that are growing at twice the rate of inflation, and a fleet that is the oldest among its peer transit systems.

Baker declined to say whether he believes the MBTA system can be fixed through efficiencies and reforms alone, or if new revenue would have to be part of the solution.

"I think we can all talk about this once you see the full report," Baker said.

While Baker has emphasized his focus on improving the management and operations at the T as a way of improving performance and customer satisfaction, others, including business groups, have argued that new revenue for the system will be necessary to clear a backlog of deferred maintenance and continue with expansion projects critical to the region's economic competitiveness.

Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Rafael Mares said it may be too early to draw conclusions about the report's finding without reading it in its entirety, but expressed his hope that reform and revenue will be addressed simultaneously.

"If the Panel ends up recommending a two-step process-with reform coming before revenue-the real question is how much time will have to pass between the two steps. We've been in this reform-before-revenue place before and it didn't work to solve the problems of the MBTA. This time, we would be well-advised to tackle reform and revenue at the same time," Mares said in a statement.

James O'Brien, president of the Boston Carmen's Union, accused the task force of distorting the data collected on employee attendance.

"Combining military service, maternity leave, earned vacation, sick time and two declared states of emergency deliberately distorts these figures and diminishes the effort of thousands of Carmen's Union workers who got the T up and running a full month before the privately-operated commuter rail," O'Brien said in a statement.

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