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MBTA seeks to ease budget strain with early retirement incentives plan

Some raise concerns over potential privatization and workforce shortages

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Facing down what the MBTA officials say said could be an $80 million budget deficit in the fiscal year beginning in July, the authority seeks to trim costs by providing financial incentives experienced employees to leave. Under the initiative, officials seek to reduce the workforce by several hundred. The program’s focus is not on drivers, who likely would need to be replaced if they leave. If the program is successful, officials predict they will save an annual amount of $25 million in wages and $12.5 million more from benefits, including pensions.

Yet some transit and labor activists have expressed concerns, saying that the MBTA’s workforce already is too small to achieve necessary repair work and that should the buyout program lead to more privatization, it could mean worse conditions for workers and riders.

Anticipating impacts

About 1,100 workers are eligible to take early retirement. MBTA officials hope that 300 of them will take that option in exchange for a one-time payout equal to 20 percent of their salary. The payout averages to about $16,576 per person, according to MBTA data cited by the Boston Herald.

Employees who do not yet qualify for retirement also are offered incentives to leave. Those with five to ten years of experience can volunteer for a $5,000 buyout and those with more than ten are offered $10,000. The MBTA aims for 200 volunteers. Those who accept would forfeit eligibility for MBTA rehiring within the next two years. Workers have 30 days to consider and decide if they will take the incentives.

The MBTA may make about 200 new hires to fill some vacated positions, and some of those volunteering to leave may be kept on temporarily to ensure there is no mass exit of workers that would damage services.

In a statement to the Banner, MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve said the plan, which would reduce the workforce from 6,500 to 6,200, reflects effort to bring employment more in line with actual needs.

“The retirement and separation programs at issue are voluntary and are directed at right-sizing the MBTA’s workforce to reduce the MBTA operating deficit,” he said. “The proper sizing of the MBTA’s workforce is a matter of management rights, and not subject to collective bargaining.”

Executive board members of Boston Carmen’s Union, the largest union representing workers employed directly by the MBTA, met with Shortsleeve and other members of MBTA management two weeks ago to discuss the early retirement incentive proposal. James O’Brien, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, said in a statement to the Banner at that time that the union was reviewing the proposal and expected that any workforce reduction would be done in a way that will not harm T rider’s experiences.

“We would expect that any proposed reductions in staffing will not negatively impact the service that our riders rely on every day,” O’Brien said.

However, Kristina Egan, director of Transportation For Massachusetts, a transit advocacy coalition, said the effect of limited staffing already is being felt. Some of the T’s transit woes, Egan said, come from a workforce too small to utilize what funds there are to enact repairs in a timely manner.

“They don’t have enough people to manage the projects so that the money can get out the door and be spent on repairs,” she told the Banner in a phone interview. “Our concerns are that there are not enough people now at the MBTA to spend the capital dollars to repair the system. These early retirements could worsen the problem, depending on what departments are hit.”

MBTA officials did not respond to Banner questions on whether the program will focus on recruiting volunteers of certain departments or positions to take the buyouts.

Should not enough people elect to accept the buyout, MBTA officials said they may resort to layoffs.

The authority also has stated intentions to privatize some of its operations, including the CharlieCard store, cash-counting and marketing. This Monday, MBTA officials sparked protest from the Carmen’s Union and some legislators when officials proposed privatizing its 38 warehouse operations jobs to rectify longtime systemic inefficiencies. While MBTA officials say privatization is the most cost-effective approach, some union members argue that it is changes to management practice, not employees, that is needed. For instance, they say, better aligning operating hours of the warehouse department, which supplies inventory, with the maintenance departments that needs it could go far toward addressing problems. Some outsourcing already is in place: Last week, MBTA officials instated officers from private security firm G4S to replace Transit Police in guarding a Charlestown warehouse used for counting cash fares.

Roxana Rivera is vice president of Service Employees International Union District 615, whose members include employees performing subcontracted janitorial and security work for the MBTA. She said that since the work became privatized, it has been a fight to attain the same quality of job conditions.

“They’ve been contracted out for a number of years and it has taken us a decade to get those jobs to be livable jobs,” Rivera told the Banner in a phone interview.

Privatization often has such an effect, she said.

“In our experience, we’ve seen how the move to privatize initially lowers standards for workers,” Rivera said. “There’s much more volatility for workers if they’re subcontracted out versus directly working for a particular building order or client.”

The MBTA’s cleaning contract is due to expire in several months, she said. While nothing concrete has been released about what the new contract will look like, given the transit authority’s strained budget, Rivera said she is concerned that the MBTA will seek to have the same work done for less money — thus fewer workers. Should this happen, it will not be possible to maintain the same level of safety and cleanliness in the stations, Rivera said.

“Cleaning right now is cut to the bone in regards to the number of workers for cleaning [the number of] stations,” she said.