- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - A union representing thousands of transit workers has renewed a grievance it filed over several new procedures aimed at controlling absenteeism and overtime.

The policies that went into effect on Jan. 1 contributed to a 49 percent decline in overtime expenses through the end of May, compared to the same five months a year ago, according to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials.

Among the changes was a requirement that workers schedule, whenever possible, unpaid leave such as that allowed under the Family Medical Leave Act to run concurrently with paid vacation and earned sick time.

The Boston Carmen’s Union originally filed a grievance on Dec. 30, saying that some of the new policies were “unreasonable” and violated the collective bargaining agreement between the Boston-area transit system and more than 4,000 drivers and other employees. The union later agreed to put the challenge on hold pending further negotiations.

In a June 3 letter to the MBTA’s labor relations director, the union said the agreement to suspend the grievance had been “canceled,” and requested that officials immediately respond to the points it raised, including a contention that the union had never agreed to the requirement for paid and unpaid leave to be scheduled concurrently.

The union supports efforts to achieve a stronger attendance policy, “but this new policy was unilaterally crafted by MBTA management, and has multiple problems,” said James O’Brien, the union’s president, in a statement Thursday.

The union decided to move forward with the grievance because MBTA management refused to negotiate “a more equitable policy,” O’Brien said.

The union said it remained open to possible settlement talks.

Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator, said he was disappointed by the union’s decision to pursue the grievance, calling it an attempt to weaken the new absenteeism policy.

The MBTA paid an average of $108,000 per day in overtime during the first five months of the year, compared to a daily average of $184,000 during the January-May period in 2015, according to figures provided by the agency. The full-year average for overtime payments last year was $154,000 per day.

Officials contend that high rates of absenteeism among workers that force supervisors to fill shifts with overtime has been among factors leading to chronic operating deficits and unreliable service on the nation’s fifth-largest transit system.

Absenteeism among bus drivers is down 33 percent from a year ago and the average number of dropped bus trips per day has declined 40 percent, the MBTA said.

“The MBTA is turning a corner and the new rules are having a positive impact on productivity and customer service,” Shortsleeve said in a statement. “We are reducing absenteeism, resulting in fewer dropped trips and creating an atmosphere where good attendance is valued.”

The T has 30 days to respond to the grievance, after which the union can request mediation. If the union isn’t happy with the outcome, it can then seek to resolve the complaint through binding arbitration.

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