When Miami-Dade schools resumed classes after winter break, Metrorail sent out half-cleaned trains to pick up commuters that Monday morning. The county blamed a persistent problem: missing workers.
“We scheduled nine, but only one showed up for work,” Buford Whitaker, head of rail services, said of the overnight cleaning shift for Sunday, Jan. 7. “It makes it difficult on us, as far as reliability and cleanliness.”
Nobody disputes a chronic lack of funding has left Miami-Dade’s transit system either approaching a crisis or facing one — with ridership dropping, bus routes being cut and Metrorail unable to put enough working trains on the tracks to meet demand.
But transit workers are getting some of the blame themselves, with the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez pointing to absenteeism rates as handicapping the department’s ability to function properly.
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A recent memo from Gimenez shows the Transportation and Public Works Department, home to the transit system, leads other agencies in workers not working — with an absenteeism rate of 21 percent in 2017. That’s ahead of the county government’s overall absenteeism rate of 17 percent. Other departments come close — Corrections posted an absenteeism rate of 20 percent last year, and Public Housing, Communications and the Elections departments each hit 19 percent.
Those other departments’ above-average rates have leaders of the local Transportation Workers Union claiming they’re being unfairly singled out as a way for Gimenez to distract from transit’s funding problems.
“Stop denigrating the blue-collar workers,” local union president Clarence Washington said at a press conference Monday, on the heels of a Miami Today editorial demanding bus drivers start “showing up” to work.
“These are the people that move this county,” Washington said, surrounded by transit union members. “The people that have been vilified every time you pick up the paper — by the mayor.”
Gimenez cited absenteeism as an issue at transit throughout a bruising year for the system. Last year saw Metrorail shave hours off in the morning and evening and increase wait times between trains as its 1980s-era fleet of cars succumbed to the effects of deferred maintenance.
Joel Perez, who supervises bus operations for Miami-Dade, said the county puts about 25 percent of its drivers on floating assignments to fill in for those who can’t drive their regular routes on any given day. “The issue is people need to be responsible and come to work,” he said.
Figures released Monday by Transportation and Public Works show mechanical problems cause most bus problems, not a lack of staffing. For the first two months of the 2018 budget year, mechanical issues caused about 95 percent of the late buses, with staff issues accounting for about 5 percent.
Transit administrators say the main cost in missing workers comes in overtime, and the money that must be diverted from core services to cover unexpected shortfalls in staffing.
While Transportation is only slightly worse than other departments in overall absences, it’s the clear leader in the kind of missing worker that left Metrorail short of cleaners for that Sunday overnight shift. The county says those workers “called out” from their shifts that day, meaning their absences were unscheduled.
Transportation trails most departments when it comes to vacation and other scheduled leave. Last year, about 10 percent of its workers were missing because of scheduled leave, compared to 11 percent for the office of the mayor, 14 percent for police and 15 percent for the medical examiner’s office.
But for absences considered “unscheduled” — a sick day, having to care for a family member, suspensions — the Transportation Department leads the way. About 11 percent of its workers were missing last year because of unscheduled absences, making it the only department to cross the double-digit mark. Miami-Dade’s second-place finisher, the Housing Department, hit 7 percent for unscheduled absences, according to the county data, which cover nine months ending in May.
“It’s a very serious issue that needs to be addressed,” Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said of transit’s absenteeism rate, “and it certainly impacts the department’s quality of service.”
A 2011 contract, negotiated during the early months of Gimenez’s time as mayor, governs attendance policies for transit workers. That contract expired in 2014, but the two sides haven’t been able to negotiate a new one. County commissioners are expected to consider an arbitrator’s recommendation for a new deal later this year. The Gimenez administration wants the commission to toughen leave rules for transit and give supervisors more leeway in disciplining workers who routinely miss their shifts.
Transit’s labor leaders accuse Miami-Dade of cherry-picking anecdotes, tweaking statistics to make their members look bad, and papering over scheduling rules that prevent their members from taking off just a few hours of work at a time to visit a doctor or attend a school event. But they do acknowledge some workers are reluctant to report for duty given the county’s transportation woes.
“As a bus driver, would you want to come work every day and be attacked?” asked union steward Cassandra Gilbert, who said passengers hurl insults and even spit at drivers over late and missing buses. “It’s very stressful.”