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Missouri Department of Transportation Optimas Award Winner for Service

A new sick-leave program that slashes absenteeism helps the state agency reach ambitious road-building goals without adding to its workforce.

September 7, 2011
Related Topics: Service, Attendance, Policies and Procedures
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Voters disagree on whether government should be involved in delivering health care or reviving the auto industry. Building and improving roads, however, is widely seen as a primary public-sector responsibility.

Missouri voters made a big demand on state government in November 2004 when they approved a constitutional amendment to significantly boost spending on roads—by $1.7 billion over seven years.

The state was determined to meet the mandate without increasing the staff of about 6,300 at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“We said [the funding] is going to be put on the roads and not toward more employees,” says Micki Knudsen, HR director for the state transportation agency.

The first phase of the program—called the Smooth Roads Initiative—involved upgrading 2,200 miles of the state’s most heavily traveled highways. Rather than finish it on the original three-year deadline, then-Gov. Matt Blunt challenged the transportation department to complete it in two years.

That meant Knudsen had to get more work out of the existing staff. She and her colleagues decided that the best way to meet that goal was to increase productivity by reducing sick-leave absences. The agency’s HR staff set about measuring leave usage, educating employees and supervisors and tracking results. The numbers speak for themselves:

In fiscal 2009, sick-leave usage in the department decreased by 25,621 hours from the previous year.

The average hours used per employee fell from 69.9 in 2008 to 64.9 in 2009, or the equivalent of the productivity of an additional 12 full-time workers.

Since 2005, total sick leave has dropped by 130,000 hours, or about 60 full-time equivalents.

In rolling out the leave-reduction program, the HR staffers accentuated the positive. They encouraged workers to better manage their sick leave so that they had a safety net for health emergencies, rather than wasting sick days to extend weekends and holidays.

The effort also involved tough love. Supervisors met individually with employees who had a pattern of unscheduled absences. The message was firm and clear: “You’re either going to be put on the road to success or you’re going to be put on the road out the door,” Knudsen says. “But it’s up to you to decide the way you want to go.”

Determining the reasons for sick-day usage could raise privacy concerns. But Knudsen said that supervisors were spared those problems largely because the agency set new rules for making leave requests.

It now took more than a voice-mail message saying that the employee would be out. An employee was required to talk directly to a supervisor. It turned out to be harder to justify a sick day to a live person than to an answering machine.

“Many times that changed the behavior without getting to the underlying issue of whether they were sick,” Knudsen says.

The crackdown actually improved morale, according to Knudsen. The vast majority of workers are dedicated and look askance at colleagues who play hooky and effectively increase everyone else’s workload.

“They were thrilled to see that we were working harder to deal with our leave-management issues,” Knudsen says. “We tried to send the message that we wanted to do the right thing by our employees.”

A more efficient transportation department also benefits Missouri residents. “We are better stewards of taxpayer dollars as a result,” Knudsen says.

For developing a pragmatic initiative that helped the state stay on the road to its transportation goals, the Missouri Department of Transportation is the winner of the 2009 Optimas Award for Service.

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