How Employee Absences Hurt Municipal Transit

Rob Snyder
March 15, 2019

     Employee absenteeism: In most industries, employees are absent for under 3% of shifts. In city transit, however, that number can reach over 10%.  When the industry is already chronically short-staffed, absenteeism makes existing staffing challenges even more urgent.

So what do transit managers end up doing? They have their “extra board” backup crews - scheduled standby staff who can take routes when an operator is absent. But, one study explains the challenge of extraboards well:

“Important consequences follow when the size of the extraboard does not match the amount of work that needs to be filled. [Delays and cancellations] occur when the open work exceeds the available extraboard. Alternatively, when the available extraboard exceeds the amount of open work, surplus operators must be paid for services that customers never see. In either case, a cost is imposed, borne either by customers or the service provider.”

It is extremely difficult to predict absenteeism for large transit systems, and harder still to convince Transit Boards and City Councils to pay for sizable benches of operators who may not end up actually operating.

The pain is real:

     In Boston, the MBTA has a target of 0.5% of routes missed due to absenteeism. In 2017, it missed this target by over 4x - with a cancellation rate of 2.1%. According to the Boston Globe, “on any given day in 2017, the T had about 100 fewer drivers than… it needed to operate all buses on schedule.”

The MBTA’s 2.1% cancellation rate is high. Its absenteeism rate - 10.6% in 2016 - is double average, according to WBUR. (However, hearing from other transit agencies, 8-10% is "normal".) In 2015, the MBTA's operators were absent 11 weeks out of the year on average.

In Atlanta in 2015, an article complained of a 33-50% absence rate for employees... every day. Their absence-related costs neared $14 million the previous year - around $3,000 per employee.

In New Jersey, 20+ trains have been cancelled per day as shortages wreak havoc on commuter schedules.

Indeed, this is such a big focus that the American Public Transit Association includes “Attendance and Employee Costs” as one of the 12 factors it investigates when naming the best public transit systems in the US.

How can you assess the costs of absences in your transit system? Here are five different costs you might consider:

Cost 1: Standby staff

     Nearly all transit operations have paid, standby staff who can quickly be deployed when employees are absent. These operators’ salaries count towards your system’s absence-related costs: Whether or not they run routes, standby operators get paid (even if they're sent home, they're usually owed four hours' pay). Without absences and absenteeism, standby operators wouldn’t be necessary.

However, most systems find they can’t fund large enough a standby staff to cover all their absences - which leads to the second cost bucket.

Cost 2: Overtime

     If you can’t fill the shift to anyone at straight time, then comes overtime!

Overtime is a hot topic in public transit systems:

Clearly, overtime costs are not just tied to absenteeism - other drivers include big events (for example, next year’s Super Bowl Parade in Buffalo, NY). Still, employee absence is one of the main causes of overtime.

Some overtime seems inevitable. But massive overtime numbers should give everyone pause - with precious cargo, the last thing anyone wants is overworked and exhausted transit operators.

Cost 3: Overhead

     In unionized transit systems, when there are extra shifts to fill, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) typically has rules that dictate which operators must get called for any available shifts.

These rules are usually quite complicated, which makes them hard to follow quickly. But when the rules aren’t followed, operators can complain and will win - they weren’t given the opportunity to get the shift based on the rules in the CBA, so they’ll get paid for hours they didn’t work.

Plus, your dispatch team is usually responsible for filling these shifts. For long stretches of dispatchers’ days, they’re making phone calls to find replacements. This leaves important work undone, stresses your dispatch team, and often generates a need for new hires.

Cost 4: Delays and cancellations

     Sometimes you simply don’t make the line - you don’t have enough operators on hand to get every bus or train out on time. This is the worst-case scenario. When your organization’s mission is to, as one expert eloquently put it, “connect people with their lives” - that is, connect people to their families, workplaces, and communities - delays and route cancellations are second only to safety risks on the list of things transit systems fight most to avoid.

Yet, as we seen in the MBTA data in this article’s introduction, it’s clear: Absenteeism can (and does) cause route delays and cancellations.


      When absences are so costly, it’s important for transit systems to have methods for efficiently staffing up. Today, this process is usually done manually, with dispatchers making phone calls to available operators according to the rules in the union contract.

However, some transit systems are experimenting with automated systems like SYRG to fill these last-minute, critical openings. SYRG follows the union contract, with our automated system automatically calling all eligible operators in order. This means less dispatch time wasted, fewer mistakes made, no union complaints, and fewer route cancellations.

Let’s talk about SYRG for your transit system:

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