MBTA reports early progress in controlling runaway overtime
BOSTON >> As it moves closer to a decision on hiking fares, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is citing early progress in reducing overtime and employee absenteeism rates that have contributed to soaring deficits on the Boston-area transit system.
Internal data to be released Monday at a meeting of the MBTA's fiscal management and control board will show that during the first five weeks of 2016, the agency averaged $115,000 per day in operating budget overtime, representing about a 25 percent reduction from the average $154,000 overtime per day over the full 2015 calendar year.
While it's still early, officials said if the trend continues, the T could save about $15 million in annual overtime costs. The agency has projected a $242 million operating deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Brian Shortsleeve, the T's chief administrator, acknowledged that a milder winter with far less snow to date than last year has likely contributed to lower overtime costs in the first part of 2016, but said stronger management controls and new policies governing absenteeism appear to be working.
"It's critical that if we are going to raise fares, that our riders are confident that those fares are going to go into the system and their money is going to be used wisely," said Shortsleeve.
The five-member control board, created last year by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, was also expected to further discuss fare proposals on Monday. The board has advanced two scenarios, one that would increase fares an average 6.7 percent, the other an average of 9.8 percent.
The discussion follows another rough week for passengers that included a day of massive commuter rail disruptions triggered by a malfunctioning signal outside South Station. The failure was the fault of Amtrak — not the MBTA — yet the difference may not be fully perceived by riders frustrated with the transit system's overall performance.
The T last month launched an internal audit of overtime expenses while revealing that more than 1,500 workers earned more than $100,000 in gross pay, including overtime, in the 2015 fiscal year. Even more surprising were figures showing that 43 percent of operating budget overtime was paid to employees who worked less than 40 hours in the weeks that they received the overtime. Union contracts allow overtime after eight hours in a given day, regardless of how many hours are worked over an entire week.
A task force assembled after a disastrous series of breakdowns last winter found that bus drivers and rail operators had, on average, 33 unscheduled absences per year, the bulk of it coming from sick days and time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The absences often result in shifts being filled in overtime, or bus trips being dropped.
"The way our riders have felt absenteeism most directly is when they are out in the cold waiting for a bus and the bus doesn't show up," said Shortsleeve.
The new figures show a 19 percent drop in absenteeism and a 48 percent reduction in dropped weekday bus trips in January and early February.
The MBTA recently adopted 21 recommendations from a management consultant for tightening its attendance and leave policies, including a requirement that employees, whenever possible, schedule unpaid leave such as the Family Medical Leave Act concurrently with accrued paid leave time.
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