CTA cracks down on tardy, absent workers

"CTA is taking a no-last-chance stance on a lot of things right now," he said. "It could be because of the contract, or the new management, but they definitely are terminating a lot of people at a pretty large rate."

Thirteen bus employees were fired as of Aug. 20 for excessive absenteeism, which CTA officials say is rampant and difficult to deal with because of lax work rules that cost the CTA millions of dollars in efficiencies each year. Discharges of bus employees for absenteeism totaled nine last year and six in 2010.

A CTA employee can be fired after seven absences in a year, officials said. Again, after a year, it takes seven more absences in the new year to fire the same worker under the rules.

Claypool said allowing seven absences in a year "is a lot of unexcused misses," but he declined to say what new maximum he is seeking in contract talks. "We are at the beginning at seeing how effective we can be to discourage employees from being AWOL," he said.

The Tribune reported last year that absenteeism costs the CTA up to $40 million a year, including excessive overtime and the cost of keeping extra personnel on standby to fill in for missing workers and to avoid canceling bus and train runs.

CTA officials said they have seen progress on reducing absences since new bus and rail managers were assigned and clear expectations were set in place in the spring, though they cautioned it's still early.

In February, absenteeism among bus employees was 9.6 percent, CTA records show. Through July, it dipped to 7 percent. On the rail side of operations, absenteeism declined from 11.2 percent in February to 8 percent in July, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

Bus drivers say they have been told by their managers that there is a change in philosophy at the CTA and that everything will be done strictly by the book, with violators being written up and offered no warnings.

"They have been firing people left and right for being one minute late to work. The bus managers are enforcing the rules to the letter, and it's almost like the union doesn't matter any more," said one bus driver who said she did not want to be identified out of fear of reprisals from management. "They are saying, 'Watch out, we are putting a paper trail on you.'"

Several bus drivers interviewed by the Tribune said the CTA is suspending more drivers without pay for work violations.

"Everything is chargeable now," one veteran driver said. "If a cabdriver cuts you off on the right side of the bus, the police will write up the cabdriver, but we will get written up" by the CTA, he said.

"They're calling everything 'zero tolerance.' If a car driver is not parked close to the curb and he opens the door suddenly and the bus hits the door, you get charged (by the CTA), even if the door is opened in back of the back wheel, even if they open the door on your bumper. In the past, you weren't charged for that, because how could you have avoided it?"

The CTA has hired 147 part-time temporary bus employees this year through Aug. 13, compared with none in the prior two years, the records show. Five full-time bus employees were also hired, up from three in 2011 and none in 2010.

On the rail side, 30 workers were fired as of Aug. 20, an increase from 17 in all of 2011 and 11 in 2010, records indicate.

Firings of rail workers for tardiness or for absenteeism are also escalating this year. Thirteen employees were fired through Aug. 20 for repeatedly being late to work, up from 1 discharge last year and none in 2010, according to the records. Nine rail workers were fired for absenteeism so far this year, compared with five in all of 2011 and three in 2010.

Robert Kelly, president of ATU Local 308, which represents CTA rail workers, said his members object to the sudden tightening of work rules under Claypool.

"CTA has taken a strict stance on absenteeism, and many in my union think it is unfair because they changed the way they do things overnight," Kelly said.

The CTA hired 138 full-time temporary rail workers, mostly rail apprentices, this year through Aug. 13, compared with 146 last year and 136 in 2010, the records show.

In other CTA unions, which include the Teamsters and various trades, a total of two workers were fired so far this year, compared with six last year and three in 2010, the records show.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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