The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Labor shortages are hampering public transportation systems, challenging the recovery of city life

A bus in Portland, Ore., in July 2020. The region's transit operator cut service by 9 percent this December because of labor woes. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

In Houston, the public transportation system is offering new bus drivers bonuses of $4,000. For mechanics, it’s $8,000. In St. Louis, bus service has been cut by more than 10 percent. In New York, transportation officials are trying to lure retired subway operators back to their old jobs.

There just aren’t enough workers to keep these systems running. Labor shortages are plaguing public transportation systems in nearly every big city, disrupting one of the critical support systems of modern urban life and complicating the recovery of an industry that has struggled mightily during the pandemic. This is raising new challenges for many cities, which have already been battered by the pandemic.

“I would characterize us in the midst of a labor crisis,” said Taulby Roach, president of Bi-State Development, the nonprofit that runs St. Louis’s public transportation system, Metro Transit. “There’s no question.”

The system is short about 150 positions out of about 1,400 to 1,500 front-line employees total, Taulby said — about 10 percent.

It is yet another sign of how deep the disruption to the labor market remains, nearly two years into the pandemic.

Complaints about the labor shortage have been loudest in industries with grueling and often low-wage work, including fast-food restaurants and hospitality. But the persistence of shortages in a field like public transportation shows the depth of complications for the labor market: Even some stable and well-paying jobs are no longer desirable to many workers, for a complicated range of reasons.

And a shortage of transportation workers can have ripple effects across a number of other fields. When bus routes are curtailed or trains run less frequently, it can disrupt the efforts of other workers to commute. And if costs go up to recruit more employees, riders could face higher fees.

Transit officials across the country described the issue as twofold: On one hand, there is now fierce competition for workers with commercial driver’s licenses, the standard needed to drive buses in most municipalities in the country, as agencies compete with delivery services like FedEx, UPS and Amazon for workers. And on the other hand, attrition rates have skyrocketed, as burned-out transit workers have left for other jobs or early retirements. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The bus-dominated St. Louis system has had to reduce service by about 10 to 12 percent to cope with the gap, reducing the frequency of some routes and eliminating a few express options outright.

“We have the budget capacity to maintain all of them,” Roach said. “But quite frankly, we don’t have the operators and it’s really impacting service, and we’re doing everything we can.”

Attrition rates have been abnormally high. While St. Louis used to lose about seven operators a month, it has been losing between 21 and 25 a month since the early part of this year.

On top of that, hiring has proved challenging, although a $2,000 bonus the agency began offering has helped sweeten the pot.

In Portland, Ore., the region’s transit operator, TriMet, announced earlier this month that it would be reducing service by 9 percent because of similar labor woes. Hiring has proved to be the biggest obstacle there.

“Our recruitment numbers haven’t been where they needed to be,” said Tia York, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We’ve had weeks where there are just a handful of people in new operating training classes. Before the pandemic, we would hire dozens of people every month. We’ve gotten a little bit behind in hiring, and now with the national labor shortage, it’s been a struggle to get the number of applicants we need to fill training classes and get new operators.”

TriMet, which operates 84 bus routes over a 500-square-mile area, is down about 45 operator positions out of 1,000. Bus operator training is not a rapid endeavor — it takes seven weeks to get new workers trained, although the program is fully paid.

To tackle the issue, the service raised its starting pay by $4 an hour in October, to $21.36, but the hike made little difference, York said. A $2,500 bonus it began offering at the end of November has proved more effective, increasing applications fivefold over the course of the first week.

York said the agency didn’t fully understand all the causes of the labor issues but knew it was part of a broader movement by some workers away from customer-facing work.

Elsewhere, public transportation service has been affected by labor issues in Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Houston, New York City, New Jersey and the D.C. area, where some bus systems are down by 10 percent or more in staffing. Riders in Philadelphia and Chicago have made similar complaints.

In states such as Utah, Colorado and Ohio, transportation officials are having trouble finding enough workers to clear the roads after snowstorms. Amtrak has been bracing for potential service cuts, if a substantial number of its employees refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the company’s Jan. 4 deadline.

And the surge of cases from the omicron variant could further exacerbate the issue.

Patrick Coomer, 61, a bus operator in Portland for the past nine years, said in an interview that bus-driving jobs had always been high-pressure but have only grown more stressful since the pandemic.

Coomer said customers, including some emotionally disturbed people, constantly challenge him about the system’s mask mandate. Attacks on operators remain a persistent threat, too, he said.

Coomer has had to quarantine at home three times in the past year after developing covid-like symptoms, but has not contracted the virus yet. The labor shortages mean that some bus routes are more crowded with riders than ever.

“It’s often only standing room at rush hour, which makes me nervous having to deal with people who don’t want to wear masks during a pandemic, not knowing who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t,” he said. “There’s also frustration from riders who think you’re late, but you’re right on time, if maybe the bus … ahead of me got canceled. We’re always faced with challenges, and now we’re facing new ones.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents drivers such as Coomer, said there are about two people leaving the workforce for every one person getting hired recently. Coomer says he personally knows about 10 people who have left, about half moving into early retirement and another half to take new jobs, like a younger co-worker who left to drive for FedEx, who he says has told him she’s much happier now that she doesn’t have to deal with angry riders.

“She doesn’t have people breathing down her neck, people complaining, sending in false or misleading complaints about her,” he said. “She’s doing really well and I’m happy for her.”

Coomer says he’d love to retire but keeps working because he is the main income earner in his house.

Bill Bradley, an official at ATU Local 757, said operator jobs have grown less desirable in recent decades. Many job benefits, such as pension payments, retiree medical benefits and apprenticeship programs, were cut back in the austerity following the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, wages from many private industries have caught up and often surpass those offered by TriMet, he said. Unpredictable or irregular schedules in a 24/7 transit operation have always been a drawback, he said, but the toxic public sphere has pushed even more people away. So people are jumping ship to go work at delivery companies or take other commercial driving jobs, like log or cement truck driving.

“I’ve seen management talk about how the next generation, millennials, how they job hop,” he said. “Well, there’s nothing keeping them at jobs. There’s no reason to stay. You drop out because that’s how you grow your wages now — there’s no other benefits that come with staying longer. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In New York, officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the nation’s largest public transit system, have gotten so desperate for workers that they sent letters to about 700 retired subway operators, offering them $35,000 to come back to work for three months.

The shortage has cascaded into thousands of trips being delayed or canceled, but getting new operators trained takes between six and nine months.

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union of America, said the MTA, which is controlled by the state of New York, deserved blame for the shortage after intentionally letting the agency’s staff levels drop through attrition earlier in the pandemic.

“Herein lies the freaking incredible genius of this bureaucratic mess that the MTA allowed itself to become,” he said. “They said it was nice to reduce head count to save a few pennies, but it was the ultimate penny-wise, dollar-foolish decision that they’ve ever made in their history, perhaps. … I distinguish New York from other cities because these are self-inflicted wounds that are not just part of the overall trend about worker shortages.”

MTA chief executive Janno Lieber, who took over in July, has confirmed that the organization shed some 3,300 jobs earlier in the pandemic by eliminating positions with vacancies. The MTA said in a statement that it was “exhausting every avenue to quickly increase the number of available train crews.”

Across the river, New Jersey Transit is offering bonuses between $3,000 and $6,000 for bus operators.

Houston’s metro transit agency has also been hit by the double-barrel blast of high attrition and recruiting challenges.

To help close a gap of about 100 operators, it has begun offering bus and rail operators signing bonuses of $4,000 and mechanics bonuses of $8,000.

The agency is also in the process of approving a wage increase for drivers, spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Some service was cut in the early days of the pandemic, Jackson said, but the agency hasn’t had to make any additional cuts because of the shortage. Daily ridership, at about 160,000, remains less than 60 percent of its former level.

“Hiring slowed at the peak of the pandemic for obvious reasons, when state and local governments put in place stay-home orders,” Jackson said. “And that, combined with attrition, which is always part of the equation, is the reason we’re working to bring more operators on board now.”

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