The MBTA Doesn’t Want You to Know Anything About Absenteeism

The T blatantly disregards public records law. So, what's it hiding?
Photo via Governor's Office

Brian Shortsleeve. Photo via Governor’s Office

It appears the MBTA is struggling just as hard to keep drivers in trains, trains on tracks, and the Red and Orange Lines from catching fire as it is providing details about its own practices.

Recent efforts by journalists at several publications, including this one, to obtain information about absenteeism at the MBTA have been stonewalled by a transit authority apparently uninterested or unable to comply with the state’s public record law. As a state entity, the T is required to disclose the raw data backing up its narrative of reform. But despite numerous requests, this evidence has yet to be provided—making acting GM Brian Shortsleeve’s vow of “real, extreme transparency” ring hollow.

So why are outfits as diverse as the Herald, CommonWealth, and Boston magazine so interested in this absenteeism data? Well, there are signs that something might be up.

Absenteeism is a contentious issue in the fight over privatization at the MBTA. The Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents T employees, filed a grievance in June over the new policy, arguing it violates the collective bargaining agreement. On July 15, Boston has learned, the policy was quietly tweaked again. Why does this matter?

Under the old policy, there were approximately 26 “pay codes” for all the reasons an employee could miss work, from a paid sick day to unpaid Family Medical Leave (FMLA). But according to two former T employees who spoke under condition of anonymity, with the latest update to the policy, this number ballooned to more than 80.

When an employee is absent, someone in operations—field timekeepers, managers, inspectors—records the corresponding pay code. Since the July 15 change, no follow-up training in these dozens of new pay codes has been given, the former employees say. MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo maintained that only violation criteria changed and no further training was warranted.

“There was a revised code list last year that was included with an updated policy, but the training on the codes was done last year,” Pesaturo said in an email. “Updating systems and procedures is an important part of moving an organization in the right direction.”

When in doubt, some timekeepers will simply record an “undetermined leave of absence,” these sources say, which can be counted incorrectly when entered into the MBTA’s “360 Data Warehouse.

Boston attempted to confirm that employees were adequately trained in these codes, but was rebuffed when an MBTA attorney said our request for compliance data wasn’t clear enough. Turns out, retrieving this data from the warehouse to see for yourself is easier said than done, as has been discovered by a number of journalists.

For the better part of 2016, MassINC Polling Group executive director Steve Koczela has tried to get the MBTA to cough up its raw data on absenteeism. But after three public records requests (the first two were rejected), “emails, tweets, and smoke signals,” Koczela still has no hard evidence to back up T officials’ widely touted claim that both absenteeism and overtime hours are down.

In September, MBTA attorney Susan Krupanski told Koczela there are “no existing documents or specific databases” related to employee availability over the last two fiscal years. “This, in the literal sense, is unbelievable,” Koczela tweeted. “The Baker admin has been bragging about reducing MBTA absenteeism for months. They refuse to tell us how they calculate it or send data.”

Even after Koczela successfully appealed to state Supervisor of Records Shawn Williams, seen below, to prod the MBTA into responding to his long-overdue third request, the MBTA has continued to ignore him—44 days and counting.

Koczela’s experience is far from unique. For nearly a year, the MBTA has refused to provide Herald reporter Matt Stout with a report on employee leave practices prepared by the consultancy firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, which Pesaturo has deemed “clearly attorney-client privileged.” The T continued to shield the report from the public eye even after both Attorney General Maura Healey and Supervisor Williams’ offices demanded action.

Pesaturo said that, up until Monday, there had been just one data analyst juggling projects for the human resources department while fulfilling public records requests. Two more data analysts have been hired, and once trained, “will be of great assistance in supporting the work of the HR Department and satisfying both internal and external requests for information,” Pesaturo said.

“In between projects for HR and the Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB), our analyst has been working on supplying the data Mr. Koczela has requested, and it will be provided.”

An October 27 public records request filed by Boston seeking the most recent compliance data related to the July 15 absenteeism policy change went unacknowledged far beyond the 10-day window required by law. Though the request explicitly named the three HR programs where this data could be found, Krupanski said it “lacks a clear description of the desired information” in a letter dated November 8.

Pesaturo said he took umbrage to the suggestion that the T has not behaved transparently in recent months, noting the improvements made since Gov. Charlie Baker formed the Fiscal and Management Control Board last year. The board meets nearly every week and runs for several hours, while transportation officials take questions from reporters and presentation materials are made available online shortly afterward.

“As someone who has been at the MBTA for 19 years, I am very comfortable stating that this agency has never been more transparent,” he said. “In short, I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find another major transit system that is more transparent than the MBTA. The MBTA is under much scrutiny these days, and that’s certainly a good thing for the T, its customers, and taxpayers.”