Anna Latino/Special to The S.F. ExaminerOne in eight BART employees misses work each day

Anna Latino/Special to The S.F. ExaminerOne in eight BART employees misses work each day

BART workers' absences cost agency millions

BART’s station agents and train operators have a troubling history of not showing up for work — and it’s costing the agency significantly in a tough financial time.

On any given day, the rate of unscheduled absences for BART train operators is 11.86 percent, and 12.77 percent for the agency’s station agents, according to information obtained through a public records request. The absences translate to roughly one in eight workers missing their scheduled shifts each day.

The train operators and station agents have worse absentee rates than other employees on BART’s payroll, but the current numbers are an improvement. Last fiscal year, train operators logged a 13.81 percent unscheduled absence rate, and station agents were at 13.20 percent. Unscheduled absences comprise sick days, military leave, jury duty and family emergency situations.

By missing so many of their scheduled shifts, the workers — both groups are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 — put a heavy financial burden on the agency. BART must find replacement workers for each shift that a station agent or train operator misses in order to keep the system running, costs that are often paid in overtime. According to BART, the average worker represented by the ATU racks up $16,590 in overtime pay each year. With 807 full-time union workers on the payroll — nearly all of whom are station agents or operators — the added costs account for $13.7 million a year in extra wages for the agency’s operating budget to absorb.

“Not only do these absences affect transit service, but they’re very expensive because we have to backfill them with overtime,” said Tom Radulovich, president of the BART board of directors. “This is clearly an issue that the district needs to confront.”

BART is already scrambling to identify about $6 billion over the next 10 years to meet core system needs. The agency is considering raising revenue — through bigger parking fees and an extension of its biennial fare increase policy — to help close that shortfall, but directly impact riders.

Antonette Bryant, president of ATU Local 1555, declined to comment on the absentee numbers since she did not have an opportunity to independently verify the data obtained by The San Francisco Examiner. Bryant said BART management has approached the union about its attendance numbers, but only on an informal and general basis.
She did say that the agency’s strong operating performance is the result of the hard work of ATU members.

“Every workforce faces these type of issues — illnesses, injury, accidents, family emergencies, you name it,” Bryant said. “The bottom line is BART has a better than 95 percent on-time record. We’re proud of the service we provide. BART works and we make it work.”

The agency has an action plan designed to reduce unexcused absences, according to a BART response to the public records request. The agency’s initiative includes measures to cut down on the number of workplace incidents and limit their impact if they do occur, improve case management for employees with health issues and strengthen compliance in areas related to absences, the statement said.

In that same response, the agency noted that the unscheduled absentee rates of station agents and operators are comparable to levels at other major transit agencies.

Muni’s transit operators — a group that has been much-maligned in the past for absenteeism — have an unscheduled absence rate of just 8.7 percent this year, and for the month of October that number dipped to 6.6 percent. Radulovich also noted that Muni drivers frequently interact with riders, an environment that can be much more stressful than BART’s relatively remote train operators.

Contract negotiations between BART and ATU are set to begin April 1, the first talks since a contentious bargaining session in 2009 during which workers repeatedly threatened to strike. BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the union members’ attendance performance could be part of the discussions.

“The district is always open to cost-saving measures which also improve efficiencies and customer service,” Trost said.

Bryant also said that attendance could possibly be discussed in the contract talks, although she has yet to see the agency’s proposals.

Unscheduled absences

Absences include sick leave, jury duty, family leave and military obligations:

2011 fiscal year 2012 fiscal year 2013 fiscal year**
Train operators 13.34% 13.81% 11.86%
Station agents 12.20% 13.20% 12.77%
Operations positions*** 9.34% 9.70% 9.32%
All nonoperations positions 7.06% 7.21% 7.98%

**Through November 2012
***This category entails all workers involved in the day-to-day operations of BART, excluding train operators and station agents

Source: BARTBay Area NewsLocalTransittransportation