Internal records dispute CATS’ tweets with driver absence numbers

WBTV Investigates: Charlotte’s bus service, CEO misled council on driver absences
For weeks, CATS, the city’s transit service, has been tweeting the number of bus driver’s out that day
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 4:41 PM EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Last week, John Lewis, the CEO of Charlotte’s transit system, told city council members that 107 bus drivers had called out on a recent day.

“We had 107 called out on that day,” Lewis said. “So, you take that 373 [drivers] and 107 people called in sick.”

Because of those unexpected absences, Lewis told councilmembers, CATS’ bus service couldn’t operate as expected.

“It is the unexcused absences that we have been focusing on for the last several weeks,” Lewis said.

For weeks, CATS, the city’s transit service, has been tweeting the number of bus drivers out that day

For weeks, CATS, the city’s transit service, has been tweeting the number of bus drivers out that day and warning that the absences will lead to “intermittent delays on CATS bus routes.”

But internal records obtained by WBTV show the numbers tweeted by CATS—which Lewis told councilmembers were “unexcused” and “sick” absences—actually include both planned and unplanned absences.

CATS’ math doesn’t add up

Take, for example, July 12. That day, CATS tweeted that there were 98 bus driver absences and warned that service would be interrupted as a result.

But the internal record posted for CATS staff—called a “Reason Code Analysis Report”—shows just 47 drivers out sick that day, one driver out on bereavement and one driver categorized as ‘miss-out’, which is the code for drivers who show up late or not at all.

On July 13, CATS tweeted that 107 drivers were out that day. But the code sheet showed just 49 drivers out sick, two out on bereavement and three drivers coded as ‘miss-out’.

Previous: A private company runs CATS bus operations. Charlotte leaders didn’t know that until this story.

WBTV obtained six days’ worth of code sheets covering July 12 through July 17. Each day’s sheet shows that CATS overstated the number of unexpected driver absences.

In a statement, a CATS spokesman confirmed that the agency counts both planned and unplanned absences in its daily tweet tally.

“Unplanned absence categories include: bereavement, company business, court personal, employee incentive day, FMLA, inactive, jury duty, leave of absence, long term, modified duty, military, miss-out, non-paid day, sufficient manpower, suspension, union business, workers comp, workers comp (FMLA),” the CATS spokesman said in an email.

The CATS spokesman said the bus system gets its daily numbers from the private company hired to run the city’s bus service, RATP Dev.

According to the collective bargaining agreement between a subsidiary of RATP Dev and the operators’ union, any of the following absence reasons are considered excused: vacation, holiday, union business, bereavement leave, suspensions, military duty, jury duty, or excused as a result of sufficient Extra Operators available.

RATP Dev has not responded to multiple requests for comment from WBTV.

WBTV investigation prompts new questions for councilmembers

WBTV first exposed the fact that RATP Dev is contracted to run the entire CATS Bus Operations Division last week.

Prior to our investigation, Charlotte’s elected leaders were unaware of the extent to which RATP Dev was involved in managing day-to-day operations of the bus system.

“We had no idea—and still have no idea—of the depth of how this relationship and organization is managed,” Councilman Tariq Bokhari, a Republican representing District 6, said.

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City council records show it has been years since RATP Dev has been referenced in a city council meeting. And the company hadn’t been mentioned this year, either, as CATS faced months of questions over mounting performance issues.

That changed last Monday during Lewis’ presentation to a council committee; a presentation that came after weeks of questions from WBTV regarding the relationship between CATS and RATP Dev.

Prior to Lewis’ presentation last week, most city leaders thought the private contract was only responsible for hiring and managing bus drivers.

Now, Bokhari and other councilmembers are calling for a full briefing to get more information from the contractor.

“It just is another item reaffirming that I learn more from the media than I learn from my own staff,” Bokhari said.

Previous: Rider vents frustrations after CATS bus doesn’t show up on several occasions

“I would love for them to come before the Transportation Committee,” Councilman Malcolm Graham, a Democrat representing District 2, told WBTV.

Graham said he wants to make sure RATP Dev is being held accountable to the contract and any missed performance metrics.

“We ought to be keeping score, understanding what the performance measurements are, whether or not they are meeting those measurements and if they’re not, why not,” Graham said.

Despite Lewis’ briefing last week, councilmembers who spoke with WBTV for this story say their questions continue to mount with every new revelation from WBTV.

“This tells a much deeper story,” Bokhari said.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said she is less interested in hearing from RATP Dev but said Lewis owes a full explanation to councilmembers on CATS’ bus operations.

“He runs the bus system,” Eiselt said. “It’s his responsibility to make sure that the terms of the contract are being followed.”

Eiselt added that, in addition to having a briefing for councilmembers, she would like to see CATS improve its communication with the public.

“I would like to see a robust communications plan,” Eiselt said. “Council doesn’t generally get involved at that level unless we have to, but I would like to see a robust communications plan.”

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