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MTA Gets Rolling With Hiring Spree But Impact on Commute May Be Slow Going

A newly trained class of subway conductors at New York City Transit’s school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Sept. 23, 2021.
A newly trained class of subway conductors at New York City Transit’s school in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Sept. 23, 2021.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA

The MTA is starting to chip away at a worker shortage that’s caused tens of thousands of bus and subway trips to be canceled or delayed this year — but commuter relief could be months away.

Meanwhile, the chief architect of a pre-pandemic, Cuomo-era effort to trim the agency’s workforce resigned as records show the overtime bill for subway and bus workers is rising.

With trains and buses now routinely setting COVID-era ridership highs — though still far below pre-pandemic levels — the MTA is pushing to fill job vacancies through an unprecedented hiring spree fueled by billions of dollars in federal aid.

In recent months, the MTA has begun replenishing the operating ranks of a workforce thinned significantly by an April 2020 hiring freeze and a rush of retirements, welcoming classes of new subway conductors, bus operators, subway car cleaners and other positions.

“By improving our recruiting efforts, accelerating hiring and increasing class sizes, our goal is to provide great public transit service as we welcome back New Yorkers to our system,” Craig Cipriano, interim president of New York City Transit, the MTA division that handles buses and subways, said in a statement.

But union and agency officials concede that subway riders are likely to continue feeling the effects of the shortage into the middle of next year because of training that takes months to complete.

“They have to scramble to hire, but it’s not so simple,” John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member, told THE CITY. “The subway jobs that require intensive training are not so easy to fill.”

‘Intensive Training’

The MTA said the most new hires have been subway train operators and conductors. Most of the 175 hires made in August and September for subway operations were to fill those two critical positions, an agency spokesperson said, contributing to 40 fewer canceled trains per weekday now than a month earlier.

“The system can’t run without train operators, conductors or signal maintainers, but those three jobs require the most intensive training,” Samuelsen said.

According to MTA’s “service delivered” statistics, just 89.3% of scheduled peak-hour trains ran in August, dropping for the fifth straight month to the lowest figure since at least January 2015.

Instruction materials handed out to aspiring subway conductors at the P.S. 248 Transit Learning Center in Brooklyn. Sept. 13, 2021.
Instruction materials handed out to aspiring subway conductors at the P.S. 248 Transit Learning Center in Brooklyn. Sept. 13, 2021.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA

That figure improved to 92% in October, according to a Friday news release from Gov. Kathy Hochul that touted a new pandemic-era daily subway ridership record of 3.2 million on Thursday.

THE CITY reported in August that the MTA reduced the training required of new train operators by taking a month off the time they spend moving out-of-service subway cars in yards and terminals. Officials are also trying to cut down on how long new bus operators take to learn their routes, Cipriano told agency officials last month.

New York City Transit has hired more than 900 bus operators this year, according to MTA documents published Friday, and plans to bring 500 more drivers onboard by the end of 2021.

More than 440 of those new bus operators came onboard in August and September, agency spokesperson Andrei Berman said, and nearly as many hires as were made in the first seven months of the year.

‘Treading Water’

In August, agency figures show, the agency ran 93.5% of its scheduled peak-hour bus trips, the lowest mark since February, when inclement weather contributed to a 90.8% service-delivery mark. In September, the MTA said, 5% of bus trips were canceled, down from 6% the previous month.

“They’re really trying to catch up, but they’re just treading water,” said JP Patafio, a vice president with TWU Local 100. “Before, they were drowning.”

Also, New York City Transit last week began training 18 newly hired subway car cleaners to clean and disinfect trains at end-of-line stations, according to a union official.

The official said 50 new hires are expected by the end of the year for car-cleaner jobs that, during the pandemic, have gone to hourly laborers brought in through agreements with cleaning contractors.

The MTA, with nearly 70,000 employees, has had more than 170 workers die during the pandemic. It has also faced vaccine resistance from some of its workforce, whose members are supposed to submit proof of vaccination or a weekly negative test in order to work.

New bus operators on their final day at the MTA’s Zerega Bus Maintenance and Training Facility, in The Bronx, Sept. 30, 2021.
New bus operators on their final day at the MTA’s Zerega Bus Maintenance and Training Facility, in The Bronx, Sept. 30, 2021.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA

In the meantime, overtime costs at New York City Transit are up because of the worker shortages. MTA documents show that the agency had $11.1 million in overtime overruns last month, an increase largely pinned on covering worker vacancies.

Robert Kelley, a TWU Local 100 vice president for station employees, said the MTA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per week on overtime to staff station booths with workers.

“They are doing doubles and triples, because we are down so many people — that’s unprecedented,” he said.

A September report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli flagged the MTA for 2,725 job losses, mostly cuts planned before the pandemic. Some 84% of the positions shed came from the ranks of operations and maintenance workers — rather than administrative posts — as part of a now-shelved “Transformation Plan” pushed for by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Anthony McCord, the Canadian executive brought in by Cuomo to serve as the MTA’s chief transformation officer, resigned Friday.

He had been labeled the “Hatchet Man” by workers and ridiculed by Samuelsen as “Cuomo’s Mitt Romney.”

“This is the MTA transformation at work here,” Samuelsen said. “And now, the MTA has been left in the most precarious spot, perhaps in its history, without an ability to make daily rush hour service for months on end.”

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