mta bus operators

AIDED BY OLD BLOOD: While these Bus Operators who were about to graduate from the Zerega Bus Maintenance and Training Facility in September were soon joined by 20 retired Bus Operators and Train Operators--coaxed back for three-month stints by payments of up to $35,000--New York City Transit remains shorthanded as it tries to return to pre-pandemic service levels.

Twenty retired transit workers have accepted a Metropolitan Transportation Authority offer to return to work as Bus Operators or Train Operators for three-month periods in which they can earn up to $35,000 while still collecting their pensions, a step taken to deal with personnel shortages in those jobs.

The offer, first extended Sept. 21, came as part of the agency's effort to maintain service in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic's toll, which caused the death of more than 100 New York City Transit employees and sickened thousands of others.

Forced to Curtail Runs

Even as ridership moved back toward pre-pandemic levels as the city's economy opened up, a lacked of trained bus drivers and Train Operators forced the MTA to cancel hundreds of runs daily both above and below ground.

"I still have not seen any retirees come back," said J.P. Patafio, Transport Workers Union Local 100's vice president for TA Surface. "The MTA has been hiring at a rapid clip, with between 50 to 75 new trainees every two weeks and by the end of the year they won't be at 100 percent, but they will be close. They are doing double staff training, which they have never done before, but there still are open runs and they are not out of the hole."

He traced the personnel crunch at the agency pre-pandemic to the "corporatization of the MTA under [then-Gov. Andrew] Cuomo when he brought in outsiders who didn't know what they were doing and removed those who did."

"As long as it doesn't undermine seniority and not undercut an active member [on matters] like their overtime, I personally have no qualms about it," said Bus Operator Roberto Martinez, who is challenging Mr. Patafio in the Local 100 election. "I will take experience over compromising safety while new operators become more seasoned."

'Short on Managers'

MTA retiree Ed Melendez can appreciate both the union's and management's positions but has no plans to return to the agency.

He spent 15 years as a Bus Operator and also served as Local 100's vice president of TA Surface, before retiring three years ago as New York City Transit's Chief Transportation Officer.

"They are very short-handed, especially in the managerial ranks, and they are catching hell because of the lack of experience throughout the system when old farts like me, with 40 years' experience, left," he said. "I have zero interest in coming back and being 'Mr. Fixit.'"

The New York Times recently reported the MTA offer to retirees was part of a national trend, with New Jersey Transit offering $6,000 signing bonuses and Houston's transit system trying to entice bus drivers and light rail operators with "incentives up to $4,000, while hard-to-find mechanics have been offered up to $8,000."

Mandates Also Play Role

"The nation's transit agencies are rushing to hire train operators, bus drivers, mechanics and other workers as they try to fill critical vacancies and rebuild a workforce that has been battered by the pandemic," the newspaper reported. It noted that another factor in the shortages was "vaccine mandates in some cities that have forced unvaccinated transit workers to take leaves."

"I've never seen this type of shortage," John Costa, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told the Times. "It's affecting communities—if we're having shortages, that means it takes longer to get somewhere."

TWU International President John Samuelsen is concerned that the labor crisis is being exploited by "Wall Street investors and tech companies who used the virus's impact to promote technology, like driverless trains and buses, "that won't be really viable for years and will seriously undercut millions of workers in the process."

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