By Jay Levine

CHICAGO (CBS) —  The union that represents employees of the CTA is accusing agency president Forest Claypool of publicizing false information about employee sick days.

The head of the union, Bob Kelly, says his members are taking fewer than half the sick days Claypool reports they are taking. The dispute could lead to a crippling CTA strike.

Kelly is technically right, reports CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine. According to documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, his members do average eight sick days a year, as Kelly says they do.

But other unscheduled days off, as the CTA calls them, really add up.

CTA employees packed the house at Thursday’s budget hearing, wearing red rally shirts and enlisting the support of the Occupy Chicago folks, chanting “Claypool has to go.”

“You have chosen to launch an unprecedented, nasty and simply inaccurate attack,” Javier Perez, trustee of Local 241, said.

CTA Chairman Terry Peterson launched the attack last month as he referred to employees sitting around to compensate in case workers called in sick.

“People had been sitting there five hours, six hours, seven hours on the clock being paid in case somebody doesn’t show up for work. You can’t run a system like that,” he said.

Kelly was right there in the front row Thursday, with documents that showed what the CTA called “absenteeism” — nearly 20 days per employee each year — included injury and family leave days.

“Those should not be counted into absent days because they are no fault whatsoever of the employee,” Kelly said.

The Freedom of Information data does shows an average of eight sick days a year, as Kelly points out, but also five injury days, and four family leave days, plus another missed or skipped assignment, for a total of 18 unscheduled days off. The CTA says the combined days off cost taxpayers $40 million each year.

“They have a budget problem, Jay, they’ve had a budget problem for 30 years, and the way to solve it right now is point the finger,” Kelley says.

The dispute is centered on the word “sick,” which the CTA claims it never used.

But the bigger question may be: How do you run a railroad with operators taking so much time off. And the CTA’s raising the issue of 18 unscheduled days off in the court of public opinion may not be a bad strategy.

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