Add this to the 1,001 reasons why America’s cities are broke:
An alarming 12.2% of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) workers — all unionized — didn’t show up for work in 2011, resulting in the cancellation of scores of bus runs each weekday, with no warning or explanation for the stranded passengers.
Zusha Elinson reports for The Bay Citizen, April 28, 2012, that on average, about 150 out of 1,200 Muni operators — 12.2% — missed work unexpectedly during the last three months of 2011. Such unscheduled absences, as Muni calls them, include drivers who call in sick to take care of themselves or a member of their family, drivers who have jury duty and drivers facing disciplinary issues.
Faced with a $29 million budget shortfall and out-of-control overtime spending, Muni is no longer paying overtime to replace drivers who call in sick. And so, the transit agency now cancels 35 to 45 runs each weekday to reduce overtime costs. The cancellations, which have resulted in cuts to bus service, are putting renewed attention on the contentious issue of driver absenteeism.
The absentee rate for Muni drivers is high when compared with the national average of 3% across industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is also higher than the absentee rate for other workers at the transit agency. On a typical weekday, 7% of Muni’s mechanics have an unscheduled absence.
But the percentage of unscheduled absences is not as high as the rate at one other Bay Area transit agency. At AC Transit in the East Bay, the unscheduled absence rate for drivers was 12.5% — the worst in the Bay Area — during the last three months of 2011. AC Transit skips about 20 runs a day, according to Clarence Johnson, a transit agency spokesman.
Muni drivers say the health hazards and stress of the job contribute to the unscheduled absences. Ron Austin, vice president of the union that represents 2,200 Muni operators, says:
“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. All this pressure rests squarely on the operator. You’ve got to be a baby sitter, and you’ve got to drive this 40-foot vehicle through very congested streets.”
The new contract with AC Transit’s 1,200 drivers requires drivers to obtain a doctor’s note if they are absent for more than three days. And operators are generally not paid for sick days unless they take two or more. Before the changes, some drivers would take a sick day in the middle of the week and then come in on their scheduled day off and get overtime. Now the agency’s new labor contract includes a rule requiring drivers to work 40 hours a week before getting overtime.