Jackie Jeter
Amalgamated Transit Union President Jackie Jeter (at podium) discusses Metro's recently implemented absenteeism policy and workers who requested sick leave this week. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

Metro’s largest union wants to ensure public transit service in the D.C. area will not be interrupted, even though hundreds of workers requested to take off sick Friday.

The move was spurred by an absenteeism policy that the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 said Metro officials suddenly implemented without input from union leadership.

One of the policy’s new requirements is that workers request sick leave three days in advance.

So, workers did just that this week and Metro prepared for it “based on an unusually high number of absence request to ensure the delivery of service to customers.”

On Wednesday, the agency denied the nearly 500 requests.

The union had a response for Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who’s led the agency since November 2015.

“Will [Metro] accept the responsibility of refusing a person who is legitimately sick from getting a doctor’s care Friday?” union President Jackie Jeter said in an emailed statement. “Will you force them to operate vehicles that transport hundreds or possibly thousands of riders while ill?”

The union held a press conference earlier Wednesday at its headquarters in Forestville to address the “sick-out” rumors.

Although the union didn’t formally organize for workers to take off because of Metro’s new policy, Jeter said, “I support the members of Local 689, 100 percent.”

Wiedefeld announced in February a new absenteeism and overtime policy would be incorporated based on an internal review that showed more than 100 employees had extended leave beyond the time limits. In addition, it would save money.

Union leaders expressed several problems with the policy, including a section on pre-approved sick leave that states an employee’s request must be “in writing and approved by a supervisor no less than three scheduled workdays prior to the requested leave date.”

It can be difficult for some workers to comply because each department have different standards, said Anthony Garland, international representative for Local 689.

For instance, those in the maintenance department can speak directly to a supervisor. In operations, workers must fill out a form.

“When the employees chose to take this action, we found out [the new policy] is not throughout the system,” he said. “[Metro officials] created this problem. They’re classifying it as a sick-out because they pushed everybody to go sick.”

The current collective bargaining agreement allows workers to call in sick on the same day for an illness, which can be done under the new policy.

However, Metro “has the right to establish the validity of an absence occurrence that it believes has not been made in good faith by an employee.”

Wiedefeld has received praise from members of Congress, state and local officials for attempting to change Metro’s safety culture, control spending and make workers accountable for their actions.

But some members such as Zuri Tesheira, a 15-year railcar maintenance worker, said Wiedefeld has done the opposite.

“Because you are in fear of retaliation, it gets you to second-guess your own health,” Tesheira said. “This new absenteeism policy forces people to choose whether they want to be healthy, or keep your job. That’s not a position that anyone wants to be in.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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