The CTA is making headway against an absenteeism problem that costs tens of millions of dollars a year, transit officials said Tuesday, pointing to the work ethic of employees like Jarouen Ellis as part of the long-term solution.

Ellis, a CTA bus driver who is the son of a retired CTA rail employee, said he hasn’t missed a day of work during his 11-year career at the CTA, except when he was forced off the job for 30 days by appendicitis.

“When you work some dead-end jobs or some really low-paying jobs and you finally find something that is good, you try to hold onto it,’’ Ellis, 50, said Tuesday near the bus-fueling station at the CTA Forest Glen garage on the Northwest Side.

Moments earlier at that location, CTA President Forrest Claypool announced that costs associated with absenteeism this year are projected to sink to $30 million, from $40 million two years earlier.

Absenteeism’s causes include excessive sick time, phony family medical leave claims and injuries reported while on duty, transit officials said. No-shows are also a big problem, officials acknowledged, and require the CTA to keep extra personnel on standby to avoid canceling bus and rail runs and often pay overtime that otherwise wouldn’t be needed.

The reduction of the problem — from a 7 percent rate in 2011 to a projected 5.5 percent this year — can be traced mostly to agency managers aggressively enforcing rules that have been on the books for years, officials said.

That approach contrasts with statements last year by Claypool, who then cited agency work rules as prone to promoting absenteeism because they could be gamed by union employees.

“What we are trying to address is the unplanned, unexcused, inappropriate absenteeism,” said Claypool, who was joined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “… It’s important that legitimate injuries are compensated and fraudulent activity is attacked aggressively.’’

The CTA has created what Claypool called “a legal SWAT team” to investigate and reduce potential fraud and fake injuries.

Responding to Claypool’s comments, union officials questioned the wisdom of being too rigid with employees and not allowing managers to use discretion.

They cited cases in which managers refused requests by employees who sought to take a day off to attend a funeral or care for a sick relative.

“It’s easy to say we have tightened up on the work rules. But it’s important to be compassionate with the membership. Our members have child care and elder care responsibilities, like anyone else,’’ said Javier Perez, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and trustee of the union’s Local 241, which represents CTA bus drivers and mechanics.

Many CTA managers have been replaced, and all managers have undergone retraining on the collective bargaining rules to ensure consistency in discipline, Claypool said.
He said managers are being held accountable and monitored on how well they follow procedures designed to prevent on-the-job injuries.

Referring to the millions of dollars that the CTA is still spending to cover for chronically absent workers, Emanuel said, “We have a lot more work to do.”

A departmental breakdown of absenteeism provided by the CTA on Tuesday showed the highest absenteeism rate in the rail operations division, at 7.4 percent through the middle of this year, down from 10.2 percent in 2011; and the lowest rate among the CTA’s administrative staff, at 2.7 percent both in 2011 and so far this year.

Absenteeism in the bus operations division is running at 6.3 percent this year, down from 8.3 percent two years ago, CTA records show.

The hourly wage for CTA bus and rail operators ranges from $15.38 to $30.77, leading to annual base salaries of $31,990 to $64,002, according to the transit agency.

Ellis, the bus driver, said he believes poor employee morale was a source of the high absenteeism, but attitudes have improved “because everyone wants to work and do a good job.’’

“It’s like any job; you come to work on time,’’ he said. “It’s never personal, it’s always business.’’

jhilkevitch@tribune.com | Twitter: @jhilkevitch