“They’re more the professionals that should be looking at this stuff,” General Manager Paul J. 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.”
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.
Metro estimated that workers took 181,422 days of unpaid leave from July 2015 to June 2016 — a 6 percent increase from the year before. Wiedefeld said he believes changes to the policy, and the investigation of potential abuses, could potentially save the agency $2 million per year.
Wiedefeld said that worker absenteeism was one of the problems he instructed staff to investigate when he first arrived at the agency in November 2015. The new policy on leave, he said, dovetails with other recent changes related to nepotism, retaliation and ethics.
“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.”
Metro officials said they have already notified 25 workers on leave that they will no longer be considered “active” employees and will cease to accrue service time that goes toward pensions and health-care benefits. In those cases, Metro said, extended leave surpassed the time limit requirements established in Metro’s collective bargaining agreements with unions, as well as local and federal law.
Another 100 employees are still under review to determine whether their employment status will change. Wiedefeld said he believes that, for most of these workers, abuse resulted from a general confusion about the leave policy, rather than an intentional 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.
The announcement on changes to the leave policy come as Metro faces a gaping budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, with a $290 million projected gap. Officials also worry that they don’t have enough money to cover operating costs for the current year, because of the dramatic drop-off in ridership resulting from SafeTrack disruptions and rail unreliability.
In the agency’s memo Friday, Metro said they have also put in place new methods to curb departments’ reliance on overtime. They are changing schedules 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.