The Truth About FMLA Abuse

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.

In layman’s transit terms–

If you’re a bus operator, it’s a federally protected way to call out or get time off with no questions asked from the agency.

If you’ve worked in bus operations in any capacity I’m sure you’re probably very aware of our industry’s challenges regarding absenteeism and FMLA abuse. In this article, I’ll break down FMLA and why operators use it in the first place.

For those new to FMLA and how it works:

It typically begins with an operator requesting it via their primary care doctor. The basis of the FMLA request is a health condition that can potentially impact the operator’s ability to safely operate a bus. For example, Asthma. (My case)

The doctor can then deem it medically necessary for the operator to be granted a certain amount of days off in which the medical issue may be a problem. 

I do not remember the exact numbers on my FMLA policy, I believe it was up to 4 days each month in the summer.

I can’t tell you the exact number of times I had used my FMLA because my Asthma had impacted my ability to work.

But what I can tell you is that I have used it for dozens of other reasons that weren’t asthma-related.  Not because it was my intent to abuse the policy, but I intended to protect myself from the archaic attendance policies that lie within the bus operations industry.

For those who are new to how operator attendance policies work and why operators use the FMLA to fight them let me explain below:

Most operators are given a certain amount of points or occurrences throughout the course of a rolling calendar.

You gain an occurrence or a predetermined set of points whenever you are not where you are scheduled to be.  I’ve worked under a point system, as well as an occurrence system and they both are the same for the most part.

In simple terms: on average you will typically have 8-12 occurrences per rolling year before you are terminated. 

(A rolling year is a calendar that starts at the first occurrence and runs continuously, with occurrences and points coming off on their anniversary. The only way to have a completely clear record is perfect attendance for about 12 consecutive months)

However please consider–an occurrence/point happens when you are not where you are supposed to be when you are scheduled to be there.

Occurrences are not just relegated to call-outs. Let’s get that understood.

For bus operators

All are documented occurrences, misses, or points.

Transit does not separate excused or non excused absences. They are all the same.

You have 8- 12 times to not be where you are scheduled to be before you will be fired. Simply put.

Crazy right?

Here is where it gets more interesting.  Let’s just say for argument’s sake your agency gives you 12 occurrences within a 252-day working year.

Now subtract 8 days for vacation and personal holidays, which leaves us with 244 working days.

Then subtract the 12 occurrences that you are granted, and that leaves us on 232 working days IF those occurrences were call-outs.

Let’s subtract one more occurrence, bringing it to 13, which would in fact terminate that operator.

That operator was just fired for being at work, on time…….

92.6% of the time

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Let’s do some more math.

The average working American has 8-hour shifts, while bus operators have 9,10.5, 11, and 12-hour shifts with multiple parts and pieces that require multiple sign-on times. Any of which you can gain an occurrence or point for.   An average worker has one opportunity a day to be “late for work” while bus operators can have up to 3.

The average 9 to 5 job has roughly around 2,016 working hours per year, while bus operators with swing or split shifts are tied to work for 3,024 hours.

On average Bus, operators are at work 66% more than the average 9 to 5’er. 

Operators spend more time at work than most but have a much shorter leash in terms of flexibility.

Let’s also take into consideration that bus operators have families too, and have probably the worst working shifts for people who have kids, next to pilots.  Some of our shifts can start at 3 am, get a break at 6 am and come back at noon and get off at 4. 

Imagine having children with a shift like that?

How would you get them ready for school?

Please don’t patronize me with seniority speech because that typically does not work in your favor until about year 6.

I worked transit for 10 years before leaving, and I can tell you with 100% accuracy that I only had one shift that allowed me to be a single parent. One..in a decade.

Run 109, 9:14am report time, 2:45pm-4:16pm break, and a 6:30 pm sign-out. With Friday and Saturday off,  This was the closest I had ever seen my agency come to a conventional “9-5”.

The only kicker was my Sunday shift was 6 am-7 pm.

Daycare at best closes around 7 pm, aftercare via schools ends around 6 pm. Neither has a provision or policy that provides resources to parents who work swings shifts and 3 am shifts like bus operators.  In summary, they are built for conventional American schedules.

If I told you how many times Patrick the III had ridden the bus with me during my tenure, you’d want FMLA too.

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And trust me, bringing your child to work on transit isn’t cute and in some instances is a fireable offense because you have someone on board when the bus may be in a deadhead.

 FMLA that ain’t FMLA usage case #1: Child care. 

P.S

You cannot say this job is a great way to provide for your family, but then say this job isn’t fit for people with families.

You cannot have it both ways.

A friend of mine with no seniority recently chatted with me about a shift that had picked him. (Bottom of the list, the run was the only one left)

The shift was from 12:35 noon to 1:09 am. 

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As someone who’s worked in planning briefly, I do understand how shifts like this can happen.

That doesn’t mean I agree.

This operator lives about 30 minutes away from the job, which is for the most part the typical American commute.

But let’s really break down the numbers. This run is due at 1235pm and sign-outs at 1:09 am.

That’s about 12 and a half hours or 50% of your day being dedicated to this assignment?

That would be incorrect.

As REQUIRED by DOT law you need 8 hours to sleep in between shifts.

So let’s say that operator gets home (30 min commute) at 1:45 am on a perfect day. 

He immediately goes to bed at about 2 am. After parking and changing clothes into his Pj’s.

(For the record in the real world this never happens because operators’ brains are wired after work and way too “focused” to immediately go to sleep. Typical wind down is closer to 2 hours, not 15 mins but let’s continue)

So he sleeps the required DOT 8 hours, which would have him waking up at around 10 am.

We know he leaves home at 12:00 pm to arrive at work by 12:35 pm, we have a 2-hour window between 10 am-12 pm to do “me stuff”

 Oh, wait I forgot about preparing for work.

Can we agree for this argument that it will take 30 minutes to shower and get dressed? My wife would never lol but let’s just use a 30 min-bench mark for sake of argument.

Ok, great so what are we working with.

90 Mins a day.

With no seniority, this operator will be stuck working this for the next few months with no actual remedy or options coming down the pike.

FMLA That’s Not FMLA Usage Case: #2 Bad runs with no way out

 

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I had ten years in transit and had never seen any run like 1509 before. It was a swing with the brown line on both parts. 7 am-7 pm. The brown while difficult isn’t anything I can’t handle. But here is where it got interesting for me.

Transit has an unwritten rule to try to drop your bus off to the relief as close to on time as possible, so the next man can be set up for success. 

Reliving my bus at 2:45 pm was anything but smooth.  I had typically always gotten my bus about 10-20mins late, daily. 

On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal, but it was the first domino.

Here’s why.

3 pm starts our evening peak, and I’m the first man out, heading northbound taking people home from central Baltimore. It’s imperative that I leave the terminus on time and maintain my schedule because I’m the anchor for the buses behind me.

I am scheduled to depart the terminus at 3 pm and in my experience in driving this route  I KNOW I need to be loaded and sitting at that long light at Greene and Pratt so as soon as the clock strikes 3 pm….zoom

It may be hard to believe this, but the margin for a successful trip can be that thin sometimes.  I was rarely able to leave at 3 pm because I wasn’t getting my bus at 245pm as scheduled.

With layovers and decent speed, I was typically able to get that service “manageable” again. However when I arrived at my north-bound terminus that’s when the true stress began.

Considering I am typically in a bad mood prior to reaching the terminus because I’ve worked my tail off because I can’t seem to get my bus on time effectively setting me up for failure before I even start. 

In transit, we have a system of lead and follow buses. I was the 4:00 departure from Overlea, Lisa( bless her heart) was the 3:40 departure coming from a school tripper, and a lady whom I won’t name was the 3:50 trip departing then there is me at 4:00 pm.

Lisa was always late because, well that’s just Lisa. However, this other operator represented the first time I saw someone deliberately make efforts to not do their job. This operator had a deadhead to the terminus and would intentionally make herself late to ride behind me,  allowing me to do all of the work and pick up all the people.

The Brown may be the heaviest line in our system and after 4 pm I was on an island.

I was about 10 mins late due to heavy loads, and my leaders were sometimes miles behind me. Causing a damn near 30-40 minute service gap and I had no answer for angry riders.

Who do you think went through those tongue lashings from passengers?

Who do you think for items thrown at them and cursed out for the waits?

Who do you think was spat at?

Lisa? Nope.

Unnamed Operator? Nope.

Me? Why Of Course.

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What made it worse was, this was how this line operated for the return trip back, and the one after it!

Stressed ain’t the word bro, for real.

In summary for 3 hours a day, I was the only bus on the cities heaviest line, during peak hours taking an absolute pounding while no one gave a s***.

What do you think that did for my mental health?

In full transparency towards the end of the run, I applied for MDOT’s Employees Assistance Program(EAP) because I was having mental breakdowns, and almost quit mid-route twice that pick. 

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They did nothing. Made me fill out paperwork and told me they would work on it.

About a WEEK later a supervisor would watch the line, and reschedule the late buses, sending them not in service in a deadhead to the opposite terminus so they can get back on time.

Great?

Absolutely not.

That just means again—I AM STILL BY MYSELF. They were taken off the line to be rescheduled, thus leaving me sh** out of luck for two trips instead of three now.

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Yay?

This assignment resulted in my first mental breakdown on the job, which resulted in an occurrence because I called supervision and asked them to come to get the bus because today “I just ain’t got it in me, I can’t mentally do this today”.

I did it you guys way. I filed paperwork for months, I talked for months, I pleaded for assistance, and my agency whom I was busting my ass for didn’t give me anything. 

EAP never provided me with any resources, no counseling, no mental health evaluations, no time off, no nothing.

All MDOT and EAP  gave me was a miss. An occurrence: For calling out one day because I just mentally could not handle it. 

FMLA That Aint Really FMLA Use Case: #3 Mental Health.👆🏾

Y’all don’t care about me, y’all care about that bus going out. 

While there are some legit medicinal reasons that an operator may use FMLA, as I have had asthma spells during hot summer months. I feel confident in saying the majority of them are not health-related at all. 

Would you believe me if I told you I and other operators were actually encouraged to get FMLA  while in training?  Not because we had health issues but because it’s the only weapon on paper that we have against attendance policies 

Most FMLA abuse is rooted in one of the following 

  • Lack of legit mental health resources
  • Lack of schedule flexibility
  • Lack of decent childcare 
  • Lack of support from management 
  • Bad relationship with the dispatcher 
  • Fatigue
  • Bad runs
  • Retaliation towards management 
  • Oversleeping and being late has the same penalty as calling out. FMLA can prevent either
  • Kids sick
  • Family emergency non-health-related
  • Funerals 
  • Stress from home
  • Stress from work
  • Bad equipment 
  • Body aches.
  • Snow
  • Car breaks down mid commute 

All of FMLA abuse stems from outdated inhuman attendance policies, that lack understanding compassion, and collaboration between operators and management. 

Fix that and you’ll fix FMLA abuse.

By having no understanding of what’s an excusable and non-excusable occurrence, transit has backed itself, and its operators in this awkward paperwork and policy first corner.

Your policy says this, while the government FMLA says this, and you end up with a battle of signed documents.

Let’s see who can use their paperwork to screw the other over first.

This is a thing.

Seriously.

When I had spent some time in planning, Patrick(son) had an asthma attack at school and needed to get home to a nebulizer (asthma-related breathing machine). 

I had told our director I needed to jet, and I can come back as soon as I get this squared away, I’ll even work a Saturday if need be. He said it’s no problem, to care for your son.

I went through a similar instance a few years earlier while scheduled to relieve a #51. Patrick’s school was going to be getting out early due to impending weather. I just needed to go grab him, from that point he can just finish out my shift with me on the bus but I can’t make this relief.

No biggie.

I called management and made them aware of the current situation.

Their response? “ You know that’s a miss right?”

My response? No, it’s not

I’d like to call FMLA, please. 

They knew it was bull****

I knew it was bull****

But it’s not about what we think is it?

It’s about what the paperwork says, right?

Cool.

FMLA, please.

Published by

Patrick E. Parents Jr.

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The first step to reducing absenteeism in transit is to have more realistic attendance policies. You don’t even have to read this article. That’s the point. FMLA abuse is a direct response to bad culture and bad attendance policies. But if you want a more detailed view, check out this article. hashtagtransit hashtagdrivershortage hashtagdriverrecruiting

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