Taking a tougher stance on chronic labor problems, the CTA has fired 63 bus and rail workers this year through Aug. 20 for repeatedly showing up late to work, compared with only nine terminations for the same violation in all of 2011, according to records obtained by the Tribune.
Discharges for several other key work violations, including absenteeism, which the CTA says costs the transit agency millions of dollars a year, are also occurring at a higher rate this year, the personnel data show.
At the same time, the CTA is hiring more workers, mostly part-timers and temporary workers, compared with the previous two years, the records indicate.
Twenty-two bus and rail workers have been fired for excessive absences this year through Aug. 20 — a rate of almost three discharges a month compared with one firing a month in 2011, according to CTA records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Some employees and union officials complain that the leadership team under CTA President Forrest Claypool has implemented a zero-tolerance policy that strips managers of authority to decide how to discipline and motivate workers.
Javier Perez, an international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union who represents Local 241, the CTA bus drivers union, said it's a new day at CTA under Claypool.
"Forrest has tightened the reins on a lot of things," Perez said. "The managers at the bus garages don't have the same discretion that they had before. And when that discretion is taken away, you are going to have more people dismissed. But in any situation, you have to treat people fairly."
Claypool said he initiated a long-overdue crackdown on work-rule violations in the spring, and a major component involved retraining managers so that rules are uniformly applied and followed. The unions were officially notified that the collective bargaining agreement will be followed strictly, Claypool said.
"In the past, there was an inconsistent application of the rules with different results based on different managers. We lost grievance cases because the arbiter said CTA didn't follow the rules consistently," Claypool said.
He said abuses that have long been tolerated created a situation that isn't fair to the majority of CTA employees who show up for work and follow the rules. The violations also aren't fair to CTA customers who suffer the consequences of a transit system coping with staffing upheavals, Claypool said.
"The consequences of employees not showing up for work or reporting late has a cascading effect on the quality of our service in terms of buses bunching up, schedules being out of whack and millions of dollars wasted on inefficiencies," he said.
The increases in discharges and hirings come amid reports of slow progress in negotiations aimed at reaching a new collective bargaining agreement after the old contract expired in December. At the same time, the agency has hosted job fairs to add about 400 part-time bus operators.
The extra bus drivers, who CTA officials say will be in line to eventually receive full-time positions, are being hired to transport CTA passengers when the Red Line south branch closes for five months of track renovations starting in May. Commuters will be shuttled by bus to the Green Line.
Meanwhile, CTA officials, who are pushing for millions of dollars in work-rule changes in contract talks with the union, aren't waiting for those reforms or predicting whether they will be successful in negotiating them.
The CTA has fired 107 bus employees this year through Aug. 20, up from 105 bus workers in 2011 and 99 in 2010, the records show.
The 50 bus employees discharged this year for reporting late to work an excessive number of times compares with eight firings for being repeatedly tardy in 2011 and 15 firings in 2010, according to the records.
A CTA employee is eligible for discharge after being tardy four times in a year, officials said. On the 366th day, the clock is reset under the collective bargaining agreement.
Paris Cooper worked as a part-time bus driver for almost four years when he was fired June 30 for reporting to work late for a fourth time, he said.
"I had no accidents on my record, I was a good employee, but I was like five minutes late for work," said Cooper, 36, adding that his tardiness was related to being diagnosed with diabetes. He experiences low blood sugar in the mornings, he said.
"According to our union contract, if you are late to work they usually give you another piece of work or you get half a miss. But they gave me a whole miss and accelerated my discipline," said Cooper, who said he plans to challenge his dismissal.