Metro cracking down on worker absenteeism with new extended-leave policy

Metro is investigating more than 100 workers for alleged abuse of its extended leave policy, part of an effort to crack down on what the agency characterized as “excessive” worker absenteeism — and save costs on health care and pensions.

The agency has notified 25 workers on leave that they will no longer be considered “active” employees and will cease to accrue service time that counts toward pensions and health-care benefits. In those cases, Metro said, extended leave surpassed workers’ accrued time limit requirements established in Metro’s collective bargaining agreements with unions and in local and federal law.

Another 100 employees are under review to determine whether their employment status will change.

Metro estimates that workers took 181,422 days of unpaid leave from July 2015 to June 2016 — a 6 percent increase from the year before. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said changes to the policy, and the investigation of potential current abuses, could save the agency $2 million per year.

The transit agency is also instituting new rules for the use of unpaid and sick leave: Starting March 1, supervisors will not be allowed to approve more than two days of unexcused unpaid absences. Requests for medical leave will be reviewed by Metro’s medical services office, which also will be responsible for reviewing doctor’s notes.

“Professionals . . . should be looking at this stuff,” Wiedefeld said Friday. “For a day or two, a supervisor can approve it, but after that if there’s something more serious going on, then it should be reviewed by people with more of a medical training.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 declined to comment on the policy changes.

Supervisors and managers who are found to abuse the policy on medical leave may be terminated, and workers with a significant amount of absences in a one-year period may face disciplinary action.

The announcement comes as Metro faces a $290 million projected budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year. Officials also worry that they don’t have enough money to cover operating costs for the current year, due to the dramatic drop-off in ridership resulting from SafeTrack repair disruptions and rail unreliability. They’ve already made moves to eliminate 500 positions, and Wiede­feld has proposed eliminating 500 more in the coming fiscal year.

As Metro seeks more money from the District, Maryland and Virginia — and possibly from the federal government — public gestures of austerity and thrift, like a crackdown on pension and health-care costs, are sure to play well among regional lawmakers, who argue that an increase in funding must be accompanied by reforms that eliminate wastefulness and decrease personnel costs.

“When I go to the governors, when I go to the statehouses and to Congress, everyone always says: Clean up your act, and then come back to us,” said Jack Evans, chairman of the Metro board of directors. “This sends a message. We are getting our house in order.”

Evans said it’s clear that Metro has gone to significant lengths to cut costs, and both workers and riders are making sacrifices. When that is coupled with actions such as the crackdown on absenteeism, he said, he expects lawmakers to begin having serious conversations about increasing financial support.

“Moving forward, I can honestly say that there is no more squeezing to be done. We’ve found every nickel and dime to make this organization more efficient,” Evans said. “Now, it’s their turn to deliver.”

Wiedefeld said that worker absenteeism was one of the problems he instructed staff to investigate when he arrived at the agency in November 2015. The new policy on leave, he said, dovetails with other recent changes related to the employee code of ethics that target issues such as nepotism and retaliation.

“I’ve been trying to do a number of things to reinforce across-the-board accountability, because we’re using other people’s money,” Wiedefeld said. “This is just a standard practice we have to start to do, to run the business the way it needs to be run.”

He said he believes that, for most of these workers, abuse resulted from a general confusion about the leave policy rather than an effort to game the system. Still, it’s possible that some may be terminated if they do not comply with increased monitoring or fail to submit to medical evaluations.

“We will explore all of these cases, and take them wherever they need to go,” Wiedefeld said.

In a memo on Friday, Metro said it had also put in place new methods to curb departments’ reliance on overtime. Schedules are being changed so fewer workers are needed to put in extra time, and managers will be tasked with vetting and verifying a rolling list of the 100 highest overtime earners for each month.

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