MTA Still Looking for Light at End of Staffing Shortage Tunnel
Subway service delays related to crew shortages are at their highest levels in months as several measures to boost employment numbers have come up short. The transit agency is once again turning to retirees to mind the gaps.
Ariel Buckle was settling into retirement last fall — “Basically, I was being a granddad,” he says — when he received an offer to return for 90 days to the job he held at the MTA for a quarter century.
“If you operate a train for 25 years and you go out for a year and a half, what did you lose?” Buckle, 64, told THE CITY on Thursday. “I didn’t lose a thing.”
The retired subway motorman was among 11 train operators, 12 conductors and 10 train service supervisors who accepted offers from the MTA last year for three-month stints aimed at filling a “critical and urgent need” for train crews, whose staffing shortages have contributed to hundreds of train delays per day.
After undergoing some refresher training, Buckle was back at the controls of trains on the Q line by December, working morning shifts on runs between Coney Island and the Upper East Side for a subway system staggered by a shortage of subway workers since early in the pandemic.
“I loved it,” he said. “My job driving trains is a passion.”
After completing the stint in March, Buckle may soon be back on the job again. Just last week, he received two letters inquiring whether he would be interested in another temporary return to the MTA, which offers train operators up to $35,000 for the fill-in duty, he told THE CITY.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?” he said. “I’m absolutely shocked that they want us again.”
The staffing issues are that dire.
Transit officials have acknowledged that a “series of aggressive actions” — which included trimming time on the up to eight months of training formerly required of new train operators, upping overtime and hiring new train operators and conductors — have still not been enough to stop subway and Staten Island Railway trips from being canceled.
In April, crew shortages were to blame for 5,398 delays, MTA numbers show, the most per month since January, when there were 6,353 delays tied to crew availability. But that’s down significantly from last December during the omicron wave, when the transit agency said there were 13,282 delays because of crew shortages.
A Civil Disturbance
The crew shortfalls mirror a labor trend at transit agencies across the country and in other fields, with job openings across the board outpacing the number of people seeking employment.
The MTA has been forced to push back its timetable for pre-pandemic staffing levels for subway operators until early 2023 and for conductors until the end of this year. Hiring for bus drivers remains on pace.
“The civil service lists are not yielding as many takers as pre-COVID, that’s the reality,” Janno Lieber, MTA chairperson and CEO said at last week’s board meeting. “We increased the number of trainers, we compressed the pace of training, we did all those things. And yet, it has not gone quite as fast as we had hoped.”
Lieber noted at the board meeting that the MTA is pulling in fewer candidates than it would have previously as a result of many potential workers pursuing more than one civil service position thanks to commonly used lists and applications that bundle municipal jobs.
“There are a lot of people hiring, there are a lot of government jobs because people sign up for multiple civil service lists,” he said. “We are getting a slightly lower yield.”
Canella Gomez, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100, said many prospective transit workers opt for other civil service jobs, in part, because of assaults on transit workers and concerns that the MTA is a less attractive career track.
“If [the Department of] Sanitation is hiring and the MTA is hiring, people are going to Sanitation,” he told THE CITY. “Word is definitely getting out.”
At a TWU Local 100 orientation Wednesday for newly hired subway conductors, Nichole Johnson said she had been aiming for a job with the city’s Human Resources Administration, where she did a work study early in the pandemic.
“I was hoping to stay there [at HRA],” said Johnson, 36, who moved to the city from Jamaica, the country, in 2015.
But when that did not materialize, she briefly took a job as a flight attendant until she landed the opening as a subway conductor.
“I’ve been a flight attendant, I’ve worked at a hotel front desk, I’ve been a certified nursing assistant, I’ve been a sales associate at TJ Maxx,” Johnson said. “Just coming to America, basically, I have to start over.”
She is among hundreds of train conductors who have been brought onboard in recent months as the MTA seeks to rebuild ranks thinned by retirements and a hiring freeze during the first year of the pandemic.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” she said. “I don’t plan to get another job, that’s how I’m looking at this.”
Salomie Feurtado worked as a patient care aide for a hospital before being hired by the MTA.
“I just know they need workers,” said Feurtado, 41, adding that she did not pursue other civil service jobs.
James Hynes, 34, said taking a job with the MTA follows a “civil service background” in his family.
“My father was a cop, my grandfather was a police officer, fire department people, sanitation, you name it, someone’s done it,” said Hynes, whose most recent job was at Staples. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Even after wrapping up his three months as a temporary transit worker, Buckle said he would not mind another run during the MTA’s time of need.
“At first I thought, ‘This is crazy,” Buckle said. “I don’t mind another three months, though, it will be three months and boom, I’m done.”