The odds of experiencing a bad commute on the CTA are greater on Mondays and Fridays and during the run-up to rush periods, all because of canceled buses and trains, a Tribune examination of performance data has found.
The worst month for canceled runs on routes so far this year? August.
Riders of the CTA's No. 86 Narragansett/Ridgeland know better than any other bus riders what it's like to wait for a bus that seems to never come — their route has the highest number of canceled runs, according to the Tribune analysis.
Next are the No. 66 Chicago, No. 151 Sheridan, No. 82 Kimball/Homan and No. 22 Clark, according to the tabulation, based on incidents the CTA reported for January through August of this year.
For rail passengers, the Blue Line is most likely to suffer canceled runs. Nearly 1,000 Blue Line trains were canceled in the time period. It was followed by the Red Line, with 873 cancellations, the data show.
The Tribune's look at canceled runs shows that "manpower shortage" is far and away the most common reason cited by the agency for why passengers are left waiting. The finding raises questions for the agency about how it manages its workforce in an era of diminishing resources.
On O'Hare-to-Forest Park Blue Line runs, trains were canceled most often between 7 and 9 a.m. and from 3 to 5 p.m., the data show. For bus operations, 6 to 8 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. are hardest hit by canceled runs, the data show.
Those peak travel periods are precisely when the CTA's capacity is beginning to be stretched to the limit, and when every bus and train is needed.
CTA rider Monica Espana said service is getting worse on the Narragansett/Ridgeland bus route.
"You have to wait probably 30 minutes or more," said Espana, 23. "And that's pretty much all day long."
In their defense, CTA officials say they have a chronic absenteeism problem and point the finger at lax work rules and union contracts that make it difficult to discipline drivers who repeatedly fail to show up. Chronically absent employees can face dismissal only after seven occurrences in a calendar year, under the current contract. Being absent without leave for multiple days counts as a single occurrence.
Rampant absenteeism will cost the cash-strapped agency an additional $40 million this year to staff fill-in workers, officials said. The extra expense comes as the CTA is expected to impose a fare increase in 2012 to balance its budget.
An average of 19 days will be lost this year for each front-line employee because of unscheduled missed work — the equivalent of about four weeks each for the 7,882-member bus and rail staffs, CTA projections show. When scheduled days off are factored in, the total averages two months lost for each employee, or about 355,000 days lost, the CTA said.
Under the CTA's collective-bargaining agreement with its unions, no pay is provided for the first two days off sick. Workers who call in sick five days in a row are paid for three of the five days (the first two still are not paid).
Employees earn a maximum of $200 per week for up to 26 weeks under short-term disability.
The CTA's rate of unscheduled absences is 2 1/2 times what occurs at transportation systems, communications companies and utilities operated by private companies, according to a 2010 study by Mercer Human Resource Consulting and Deloitte.
The transit agency's new president, Forrest Claypool, has vowed to end what he called "an unacceptable level of gaming the system" that has been tolerated by previous administrations.
"If you look at the absenteeism numbers, the long-awaited four-day workweek has arrived for the CTA," said Claypool, who added that he will take a hard line with the unions when their labor contracts expires at the end of the year.
Labor costs account for 70 percent of the CTA's operating budget.
Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents CTA bus drivers and rail operators, agreed that absenteeism is excessive, but they blamed CTA management for fostering poor morale among the rank and file.
"I, as a union leader, have been fighting on the CTA's side to help get more funding. But we feel management is always working against us,'' said Robert Kelly, president of ATU Local 308, the rail workers union. "All we ask for is respect, and we don't get it here. It has always been that way. CTA always assumes you are guilty until you are proven innocent."
No-show workers are causing serious gaps in CTA service and overcrowding on buses and trains across the system. But the CTA has managed to keep canceled bus and train runs to less than 5 percent of total runs by paying overtime and staffing hundreds of standby bus drivers and train operators each day to fill in for chronically absent employees, officials said.
CTA bus garages staff about 600 extra employees every day to fill in for drivers who call in sick or simply don't show up, officials said. About 280 extra employees are scheduled on the rail side to fill in. About 90 percent of the extra workers are needed because of unscheduled absences, CTA officials said.
"We basically carry a very large contingent of workers on standby in recognition of the abuse that has become institutionalized at the CTA," Claypool said.
But union officials said a transit operation is a unique business that always requires extra staffing.
"People in all walks of life get sick, miss work — and often nobody needs to fill in for them. But buses and trains must keep running, and it's normal to have a contingency workforce," said Larry Hanley, president of the ATU international union in Washington. The international last month took over control of the CTA bus drivers union, ATU Local 241, citing "runaway financial problems."
Claypool said a number of employees "mysteriously call in sick on Mondays or Fridays, particularly around holiday weekends as well as other times, to bookend their weekends."
"It is a minority of workers who don't show up for work,'' he said. "But it is endemic and growing worse."
The most canceled bus runs so far this year occurred on Mondays, with 233 cancellations; Fridays, with 135; and Tuesdays, with 128. Leading the cancellation rankings on rail were Fridays, with 400 cancellations; Thursdays, with 356; and Mondays, with 349, the Tribune found.
The vast majority of 686 canceled bus runs identified by the Tribune from January through August were caused by manpower shortages, for a total of 526 incidents. Administrative reasons come in a distant second, at 155 cases, and there were five incidents of equipment breakdowns, the records show.
CTA officials said most of the canceled runs attributed to administrative causes were linked to manpower shortages and work rules.
On rail, manpower shortages were also the No. 1 cause listed, 1,125 incidents; followed by runs eliminated because of service-restoration issues, 806 events; equipment shortages, 162 cases; and defective equipment, five incidents.
CTA bus drivers and train operators seem to be highly susceptible to illness on Mondays and Fridays, according to attendance records.
The problem even extends to the workers' families. Some 188 of the 600 bus drivers, or one-third of the workforce assigned to the North Park garage, have been approved for Family and Medical Leave Act status, according to CTA records. North Park, 3112 W. Foster Ave., has the highest canceled-run rate among CTA garages.
CTA workers can take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, under the law.
Many of the North Park workers or their next-of-kin fall sick on Mondays, CTA records indicate, causing the employees to abruptly take unscheduled days off on the first day back to work after the weekend.
Commuter Theresa Silva, 22, a mother of two children, said she no longer relies on the CTA when service is infrequent or slow and buses are packed.
"I'll just walk," said Silva, who is studying to be a paralegal at Wright College, less than a mile from her home.
Tribune reporter Ronnie Reese contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye