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Canceled Bus Runs Draw Attention to Absent Drivers

 
Muni cancellations remain high, leaving passengers with long waits and many questions

Last Monday, Muni canceled 43 bus runs, leaving passengers with long waits, with no warning and no explanation for the delays.

The transit agency now cancels 35 to 45 runs each weekday to reduce overtime costs. As The Bay Citizen reported earlier this month, Muni is no longer paying overtime to replace drivers who call in sick.

The cancellations, which have resulted in cuts to bus service, are putting renewed attention on the contentious issue of driver absenteeism.

On average, about 150 out of 1,200 Muni operators — 12.2 percent — missed work unexpectedly during the last three months of 2011. Such unscheduled absences, as Muni calls them, include drivers who call in sick to take care of themselves or a member of their family, drivers who have jury duty and drivers facing disciplinary issues.

The absentee rate for Muni drivers is high when compared with the national average of 3 percent across industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is also higher than the absentee rate for other workers at the transit agency. On a typical weekday, 7 percent of Muni’s mechanics have an unscheduled absence.

But the percentage of unscheduled absences is not as high as the rate at one other Bay Area transit agency. At AC Transit in the East Bay, the unscheduled absence rate for drivers was 12.5 percent — the worst in the Bay Area — during the last three months of 2011. At the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the absentee rate for bus drivers was 8.9 percent. The rate for the small force of 290 drivers at SamTrans was 4.1 percent.

Muni drivers say the health hazards and stress of the job contribute to the unscheduled absences.

“We’re dealing with homeless people and sick people and mentally ill people and children and teenagers while we’re trying to keep everything on schedule,” said Ron Austin, vice president of the union that represents 2,200 Muni operators. “All this pressure rests squarely on the operator. You’ve got to be a baby sitter, and you’ve got to drive this 40-foot vehicle through very congested streets.”

Muni and AC Transit rely on an “extra board,” a group of on-call bus drivers who fill in if a driver is late or absent. Muni schedules about 1,200 drivers each weekday and has about 100 on call. AC Transit schedules about 525 drivers during the week and has 150 on call.

In the past, when all of the on-call drivers were working, Muni would pay overtime to drivers who were off to come in and cover any remaining shifts. But faced with a $29 million budget shortfall and out-of-control overtime spending, Muni decided last month to skip bus runs instead.

The move has been blasted by critics as a “stealth cut” to bus service in San Francisco. Ed Reiskin, the Municipal Transportation Agency’s director of transportation, backed away from an unpopular proposal to cut service in order to save money earlier in the year.

Muni is not the only agency to cancel runs when drivers call in sick. AC Transit skips about 20 runs a day, according to Clarence Johnson, a transit agency spokesman.

Both agencies have seen a slight decline in driver absentee rates. The rate for AC Transit drivers was 13.9 percent over the past three years. It peaked at 18.5 percent in August of 2010. Muni’s driver absentee rate has edged down from 13.7 percent in 2010 to 12.9 percent in 2011.

Managers at AC Transit and Muni say new labor contracts have helped reduce unscheduled absences.

The new contract with AC Transit’s 1,200 drivers requires drivers to obtain a doctor’s note if they are absent for more than three days, according to Johnson. And operators are generally not paid for sick days unless they take two or more.

Before the changes, Johnson said, some drivers would take a sick day in the middle of the week and then come in on their scheduled day off and get overtime. Now the agency’s new labor contract includes a rule requiring drivers to work 40 hours a week before getting overtime.

“I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but the old rules made it easy for you take days off and then get overtime,” Johnson said.

But Yvonne Williams, president of the union that represents AC Transit drivers, said that two-day policy was having the opposite effect, encouraging drivers to miss more work.

“If there’s a problem with unscheduled absenteeism, then it’s a managerial problem and we’re willing to work with them to fix that,” she said.

Paul Rose, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman, said that Muni also wanted to hire more full- and part-time drivers.

“That would reduce missed runs and overtime,” he said.

But Austin, of the Muni operators union, said hiring drivers would not be as easy as it once was. He said Muni drivers bore the brunt of the blame for Muni’s slow and often late service.

“People aren’t clamoring to work here anymore,” Austin said. “With adversaries in City Hall, adversaries in the public, it rapidly becomes a job that’s just not worth it.”

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