Aug. 03--The MBTA has been forced to rehire seven drivers and other key employees after they were fired for offenses ranging from dozing at the wheel due to drug use, child rape, and assaulting and making bizarre threats of violence against co-workers -- after bureaucratic arbitrators overturned their dismissals on technicalities, a Herald review has found.
The Herald demanded T arbitration records after a motorman convicted of striking his pregnant girlfriend with a chain was given his job back last spring.
News of arbitrators' leniency toward public servants entrusted with passenger safety has alarmed T crash victims, rider advocates and the pols who oversee the region's sprawling transit system.
"I think it is downright irresponsible of the arbitrators. ... You are putting people's lives in jeopardy," said Ben Papapietro, who as a 19-year-old Red Sox intern heroically comforted an injured fellow passenger trapped in a fiery 2008 Green Line crash in Newton that killed the driver.
Papapietro said he doesn't think anyone should have to go through what he did -- and the forced rehirings of potentially dangerous drivers ups the odds.
"It was the single most terrifying thing I've ever experienced," he said, adding that the MBTA should have the ultimate authority to remove unfit operators.
Of 22 workers whose union fought for their jobs in arbitration since 2009, seven were ordered rehired, some with back pay.
Among those cases was a Green Line trolley operator who tested positive for cocaine and admitted to an addiction after being caught dozing behind the controls -- less than a month after the fatal trolley crash in Newton. She was awarded her job by an arbitrator who felt the T violated her right to privacy by ordering the drug test, the review found.
The arbitration records, from which the T redacted employee names, include a bus driver arrested for attacking a co-worker at a Chelsea gas station -- despite being warned to stay away from her colleague. She won her job back when an arbitrator ruled the T failed to terminate her "within the contractual time limits," by waiting until after she admitted her guilt in court.
A bus driver fired over his 1987 conviction for child rape after he applied for a promotion got his job back when the arbitrator ruled that the MBTA knew about his record when he was initially hired in 2000, before a 2004 rule change banned workers with criminal sex records. Another driver who was canned after missing seven months of work for injuries she said she suffered when teens threw eggs at her was also rehired.
Stuart Spina of the T Riders Union, a passenger advocacy group, said, "There are certain things where you don't get a second chance." He said workers should never be reinstated if there is "incontrovertible evidence that (their) actions or behavior could have or may indeed put their co-workers or the riding public in danger."
But James Litton, a Boston lawyer hired by the MBTA and the Carmen's Union to arbitrate grievances, determined the MBTA lacked "reasonable suspicion" to order the dozing Green Line operator to undergo a drug test immediately after a rider spotted her nodding off in the rear car at Park Street Station in 2008.
Litton, who declined to comment, noted in his ruling that the worker, after testing positive, "acknowledged that the result was 'no surprise' to her and that she had been using cocaine since her daughter introduced it into the household."
The Carmen's Union did not return calls for comment. MBTA General Manager Richard Davey said in a statement: "The conduct and behavior of our employees is of paramount interest at the MBTA, and that's why disciplinary action is taken when necessary or warranted. As stipulated in collective bargaining agreements, disciplined employees are entitled to avail themselves of an appeals process."
Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth), a member of the Transportation Committee, said, "When it comes to public safety, the pendulum should swing back a little more toward management discretion."
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