clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Subway Workforce Dwindles as Pandemic and Hiring Freeze Take Toll

A conductor on a Manhattan bound L train leaving DeKalb Avenue, April 15. 2021.
A conductor on a Manhattan bound L train leaving DeKalb Avenue, April 15. 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The MTA is operating a pared-down workforce that’s shed more than 2,600 subway jobs since 2019, figures obtained by THE CITY show — leaving fewer employees to operate trains and maintain a system struggling to rebound from the pandemic.

Data from internal New York City Transit “personnel strength” reports reveal the number of workers within the Department of Subways has shrunk by nearly 9% since January 2019, when there were close to 30,000 employees on the payroll.

Track workers, tower operators, train crews and dispatchers are among those who have exited en masse in the last two years as a hiring freeze, retirements and the COVID-19 crisis helped reduce the number of subway workers at the MTA to 27,248 by February.

Figures reviewed by THE CITY, and confirmed by the MTA, show the subway division has 2,623 fewer jobs from a little more than two years earlier. The union for transit workers contends that long-term attrition could affect safety and reliability as more riders return to the subway.

“If they don’t fill spots, the tracks aren’t going to be safe, the system is not going to be maintained,” said Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. “Eventually, it is going to have an impact.”

Many of the positions opened during the last year, when subway ridership, at its low point in April 2020, plummeted by more than 90%. MTA data shows two days last week where the number of subway trips climbed above 2 million trips, about 34% of the pre-pandemic norm of more than 5 million.

“As service comes back, it’s very important that they fill those positions,” Utano said.

Transit officials have been encouraging riders to return to the subway, which experts say is central to the city’s economic recovery as more people get back to offices, ball fields, bars, theaters and restaurants amid an increase in vaccinations and decrease in COVID cases.

But a recent MTA survey of more than 33,000 New Yorkers found riders are more concerned about crime and harassment on trains and in stations than they were six months ago.

‘Not Enough Bodies’

Data shows the number of track workers fell from 1,993 in January 2019 to 1,721 in February 2021 — a decrease of 13.6%. The subway conductor ranks dropped to 2,346 — down nearly 12% from 2,664 just over two years earlier. In January 2019, there were 3,598 train operators, but by this February, that figure had dropped 11.5% to 3,182.

There were also fewer tower operators, train dispatchers, station agents, signal maintainers and station cleaners, according to the figures. The MTA also lost nearly 160 workers to COVID-19, a spokesperson said.

“It’s people leaving, it’s people retiring,” Utano said. “Look, the virus had an impact.”

In January, THE CITY reported that worker shortages and illnesses among subway train crews had caused more than 4,200 one-way subway trips to be canceled the previous month.

“There’s just not enough bodies,” Eric Loegel, a TWU Local 100 representative, said at the time. “There’s not enough qualified conductors and operators.”

As the pandemic-driven drop in ridership tanked MTA revenues, the agency put off hiring new classes of train operators and subway conductors and suspended many capital projects.

A conductor signals towards the stripped bar on reaching DeKalb Ave station. Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Sarah Feinberg, the interim head of New York City Transit, last month pledged to restore full service on the C and F lines after it was scaled back on all lines in the early stages of the pandemic.

An MTA spokesperson on Friday said the agency is running full service on most lines and making moves to close gaps in the subway workforce.

“We are hiring to fill operating positions affected by normal attrition and we will continue to hire as required to provide our customers with the safe, reliable service they deserve,” said the spokesperson, Andrei Berman.

The Cuts They Planned

In the months before the pandemic gripped New York, the MTA had announced plans to slash 2,700 jobs by the end of last year as part of an agency-wide reorganization that was signed into law in 2019.

The state legislature directed the MTA to come up with an organizational restructuring plan. In February 2020, the agency’s chief transformation officer described the planned cuts as “reduction in force” designed to “transform the MTA to become the center of excellence worldwide in mass transportation.”

The planned cuts were postponed that March.

But with billions of dollars in federal aid for the MTA secured as part of the nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, Utano said the agency needs to pick up the pace on hiring.

“We can’t go on forever like this,” he said. “They’ve got the funding now — they need to start hiring.”

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning