CTA cracks down on tardy, absent workers

As number of fired workers grows, employees call transit agency's zero-tolerance policy unfair

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.

"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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