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MBTA's Workforce Policies 'In A State Of Disrepair,' Control Board Member Says

An Orange Line train pulls into Community College Station in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An Orange Line train pulls into Community College Station in Charlestown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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With absent operators the leading cause of cancelled bus and subway trips, a member of the MBTA's oversight board told state legislators that the T must take a similar approach to fixing its administrative system as it has to cataloging and updating its infrastructure needs.

"The state of good repair of the MBTA’s vehicle, equipment and machinery — we have a scorecard for that, and a $7.3 billion price tag. We need to take the same approach to the T’s most valuable resource, the thousands of workers who show up 365 days a year," control board member Brian Lang told the Transportation Committee Wednesday. "For this, our most valuable resource, we find the T is in a state of disrepair."

Lang and other members of the T's control board -- along with T General Manager Frank DePaola, T Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve and state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack -- were before the committee to discuss the control board's first report, which was released last week.

That report painted a dire picture of the long-troubled transit system’s finances, and Lang testified Wednesday that a "broken administrative system" is also leaving the T's workforce in rough shape.

According to the report, both planned and unplanned operator absences accounted for nearly 69 percent of the 34,347 trips dropped on MBTA buses and subways between January and August of this year — something Lang said "has a tremendous impact on rider experience." And Lang attributed $11 million of the T's $53 million overtime spending last year to unscheduled absences and vacancies.

Source: MBTA (Click to enlarge)
Source: MBTA (Click to enlarge)

"Lowering [overtime spending] will free up money that can be used to help close the structural deficit," Lang said.

Lang blamed staffing problems on broken personnel policies and procedures that are unclear and difficult to track. Lang also said the T's "antiquated computer system" has made it hard to really get a full view of the personnel issues.

"The Fiscal Management and Control Board has not been able to get a simple list of existing job classifications with the number of workers in each classification, and the number of vacancies in each classification," Lang said. "The computer capability isn’t there to spit that out."

Lang did point to some improvements on the horizon, such as hiring a leave manager and a recruitment manager, plans to train 700 staffers on leave policies and procedures, and audit certifications of the nearly 2,000 employees who are out via the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Lang also said the T is looking for a third-party administrator to manage absences because the current computer system can't handle it. When asked by lawmakers, Shortsleeve, the MBTA administrator, said he doesn't know what an upgrade to that computer system would cost.

Still, T control board chair Joseph Aiello said one of the realities behind some of the workforce issues is that "people are pretty beat up," not just by last winter's system struggles, but by "years of underinvestment."

"One of the things that we need to put into place is a real culture shift, that there is a permanent, entrenched desire to make the system work, to make the system be as good as the system possibly can be and to be one of the premier systems in the United States,” Aiello testified.

The oversight board, which was created in July in response to the T's struggles last winter, was invited to testify before the committee to discuss their first report on the state of the transit system. Most of the meeting was spent leading the committee members through the report.

Several legislators also asked for more specific data behind some of the control board's findings, and had suggestions as to what to include in further reports.

The T control board's next report is due in December.

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Abby Elizabeth Conway was formerly a digital producer and editor at WBUR.

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