A recent report on San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency conducted by the Controller's Office points to the $42 million cost of absenteeism at the agency and cites a culture of leave-taking and lack of absence management that has recently, as is somewhat typical, resulted in delays and altered routes for Muni riders.
The report, which was fodder for the Examiner, ABC 7, and other news outlets, drew on the accounts of 116 Muni employees and through 132 focus group surveys "found that employees feel a lack of respect and collaborative communication and that the perceived lack of respect and communication decreases accountability and commitment to the organization."
Setting aside a lack of morale, according to SFMTA's Human Resources Division, "the agency lacks a group dedicated to managing absences. Instead, employees’ leaves are, at times, individually monitored by the employees' supervisors, but this is left to each supervisor's discretion. In some cases, employees’ leaves are not monitored at all." That's made SFMTA's absenteeism rate second in the city among San Francisco's top ten highest-budgeted departments, with Muni's absenteeism most common among transit operators.
At least under the anonymity granted by the survey, some employees readily admitted that they call in sick when their vacation requests are denied. "If I can’t get vacation, dispatchers tell me to hit the sick book," one employee wrote, explaining that it could become a catch-22. "Then I get in trouble for sick abuse," they wrote. According to another employee: "The pattern of sick abuse is ridiculous," and the solution is to "eliminate the sick abuse pattern."
Absenteeism has been a chronic ailment of the department for some time. In 2010, when the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst claimed that Muni could save more than $3 million a year by revising driver-friendly rules and adjusting overtime, as the Chronicle reported at the time. In 2012, the New York Times remarked on a typical instance in which 43 Muni bus runs had been canceled with no explanation, a move the transit agency said was a common daily occurrence to reduce overtime costs. For that article, a union representative spoke to the challenges of drivers' jobs: “We’re dealing with homeless people and sick people and mentally ill people and children and teenagers while we’re trying to keep everything on schedule," the representative told the Times. "All this pressure rests squarely on the operator. You've got to be a babysitter, and you've got to drive this 40-foot vehicle through very congested streets.” The figures for the high cost of absenteeism are likewise old news. The $42 million in leave pay to employees statistic quoted in the new audit stems from fiscal year 2013-2014.
Beyond keeping actual, centralized track of employee absences, one solution to the issue suggested by the Controller's Office report is to streamline the "return-to-work" process. "When employees take longer than necessary to return to work, SFMTA has to either decrease services or incur costs to cover for absent employees," the report explains. "To mitigate this risk, SFMTA needs to actively monitor the return-to-work process." Meanwhile, ABC 7 points to a new crop of Muni transit operators who might fare better: 70 new drivers are graduating from its training program in the new year.