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CTA touts $10 million in savings from crackdown on absenteeism

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File Pho| Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File Photo | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 1, 2013 6:23AM

Rampant absenteeism that once cost the CTA $40 million a year — and delayed bus and rail service — is down 22 percent, thanks to a crackdown that a union leader called unfair to the rank and file.

Even with the $10 million savings, the CTA has a $30 million-a-year problem caused by employees who abuse sick time, report frequent injuries on the job or make excessive use of medical leave.

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTA President Forrest Claypool were so proud of the progress they have made in cracking what Claypool once called a “$40 million nut” that they held a news conference at a CTA bus garage to talk about it.

During the first six months of 2013, absenteeism has dropped to 5.5 percent or 72,024 work absences. That’s down from 7.1 percent and 88,320 days during the first six months of 2011 and 6.4 percent 77,150 days last year.

The savings was generated by closer scrutiny of absenteeism requests, consistent discipline and improved training to minimize on-the-job injuries.

Managers who don’t crack the whip on chronic absenteeism — and fail to enforce the mandate for a doctor’s verification after two straight sick days — are held accountable for being too lax.

“Absenteeism costs us money, but [also] has a direct impact on service. If bus drivers or train operators don’t come into work, that means that bus and train service could be delayed. It also means we have to pay additional drivers and operators, sometimes overtime, to fill in for absent drivers,” Claypool said. “We’ve been at this about fifteen months and have made enormous progress in that time. With more time, we can make further progress.”

Emanuel noted that he has made a similar dent in chronic absenteeism at the Department of Streets and Sanitation that once forced the city to choose between street sweeping, tree-trimming and rodent control.

There, absenteeism is down 16.3 percent among motor truck drivers and by 13 percent among laborers.

“This is real money — $10 million the taxpayers are saving and better services,” Emanuel said. “I have directed all my sister agencies to find out where they are on absenteeism . . . and report back a plan in the next 45 days.”

Eric Dixon, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 308, said the CTA has “gotten rid of a lot of folks on the bus and rail side — people who were chronically absent,” in part, by refusing to accept legitimate excuses.

“In the past, we’ve always worked it out when people had absenteeism problems. Now, for whatever reason, they’re not giving them a second chance,” Dixon said. “Some people actually have problems. You might have baby-sitter issues. You might have been in an accident — something beyond your control that warrants a second chance. Now, they’re no longer taking documentation. We had a young lady stuck in a Metra station elevator. She provided documentation that the elevator was broke. It was beyond her control. They still gave her a missed assignment for that day. It doesn’t make sense.”

Claypool countered that the CTA has followed the collective bargaining agreement “to the letter” and if employees believe otherwise, they can file a grievance.

He scoffed at the union’s claim that absenteeism is worse among non-union CTA managers, who get full-time pay for sick days, a perk union members don’t enjoy.

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