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City Controller report scathes Muni for chronic absenteeism

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Muni operators swap buses on Bayshore Boulevard in the Bayview in September. The City Controller’s Office says chronic absenteeism is impacting the transit agency’s service. (Dan Chambers/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Mere days after Muni service was impacted when 10 percent of the fleet’s workforce called in sick, the City Controller’s Office issued a report addressing the agency’s notorious chronic absenteeism.

It was long in the works, and the timing is an apparent coincidence, but the report highlights the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s failure to keep staffing levels high enough to consistently deliver Muni service.

“The audit found that SFMTA needs to improve its overall organizational culture, which should increase employee engagement and allow for better management of employee absenteeism,” wrote Tonia Lediju, director of audits, to SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin and the SFMTA Board of Directors.

The auditors spoke with 116 employees with 26 job classifications across the agency, according to the report. The report focuses Muni operators, but includes absenteeism throughout the entire agency.

Through 132 focus group surveys, the audit found “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,” Lediju wrote.

The audit provided 27 recommendations to solve the absenteeism problem, including data-driven analyses, hiring outside experts, improving the culture of work-life balance at the SFMTA and improving internal communication.

“We asked the controller to look into this issue for us and make recommendations for improvement,” said Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA. “We appreciate the time they spent on this and are already implementing the recommendations.”

The report also detailed anonymous SFMTA employees, who called out their colleagues for scheming the sick-leave system.

“The pattern of sick abuse is ridiculous — eliminate the sick abuse pattern,” said one employee.

Another wrote, “If I can’t get vacation, dispatchers tell me to hit the sick book then I get in trouble for sick abuse.”

But other employees wrote that many are afraid to call in sick because of management crackdowns.

“People go to work sick so they don’t get on the sick abusive list,” an anonymous staffer wrote.

In particular, the City Controller wrote that the SFMTA’s staffing analysis is “inadequate” and has failed to analyze the amount of leave that operators take and how to schedule others in light of that.

Inappropriate staffing analysis can lead to canceled transit runs, “resulting in longer wait times and more crowded vehicles for public transit users,” the controller wrote, and “increased overtime costs from staff voluntarily working additional hours to cover a workload that requires more positions than are staffed.”

Eric Williams, head of the Muni operators union, Transport Workers Local 250-A, said the growing workload has become increasingly difficult to handle.

Because of an ongoing operator shortage, due to what Williams called inadequate training, too many operators are taking overtime — and he said that’s what is leading to chronic absenteeism.

“Yeah, the members are getting tired, they’re getting burnt out,” Williams said.

The SFMTA has tried to boost its training resources. In particular, the agency asked the Board of Supervisors to approve a new training facility in South San Francisco in March.
The board said it was too costly, and rejected the proposal.

In light of that setback, Rose said, “We are continuing to look at additional opportunities to locate permanent [training] facilities.”

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