Report Documents ‘Stunning’ MBTA Labor Shortage

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By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority appears to be on track to start the next fiscal year with staffing levels 20 to 25 percent below what’s required to maintain the system and needs to hire 2,800 workers in the next 12 months to ensure safety and progress, according to a new report, which raises questions about how long staffing-related service reductions will remain in place.

Governor Maura Healey’s hand-picked MBTA general manager Phillip Eng takes over the fraught system next week, and has said he is committed to “ramping up hiring to ensure that we have the workforce in place to deliver the reliable service that riders deserve.”

Factoring in current workforce numbers, vacancies, and expected departures, the new Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation analysis says the T needs to hire 2,800 more workers just to meet existing needs at the agency. That’s well above the T’s fiscal year 2023 operating budget staffing plan, which called for hiring 1,759 new staff, increasing the MBTA’s operations headcount by a net 1,091 after accounting for backfilling vacancies.

In the first half of fiscal 2023, the T’s 676 total hires nearly doubled the 344 hires the organization made in the same period of fiscal year 2022.

When counting how many of the 676 new hires are backfilling vacant positions, the MBTA headcount stood at an increase of about net 170 this fiscal year as of March 2023, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report says.

“While the MBTA has made progress in its hiring processes with a gain of about 170 in its operating headcount in FY 2023, increased separations from retirements, competitors, and the effects of COVID have forced the T to operate with 14 percent of budgeted positions vacant. As troubling as that sounds, the MBTA could start the new fiscal year with staffing levels of 20 to 25 percent below what’s required to maintain and operate the core system,” the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said.

In its fiscal year 2024 operating budget, the MBTA board proposed funding for about 7,600 workers — a 30 percent increase over current staffing, said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation vice president for policy and research Andy Bagley, who wrote the report. New workers would backfill 1,088 current vacancies, address safety concerns that the Federal Transit Authority directed the T to fix, add staffing for the MBTA’s bus network, operate the new Green Line Extension, and implement its fare transformation program.

Short 1,800 workers of what it needs, with 1,100 vacant positions to fill and 600 fewer bus operators than the average of the previous four years, Bagley said the T faces a “stunning” labor shortage at a time when hiring has become a challenge statewide.

“It’s a stunning gap to see what they think they need to adhere to the FTA directives and to fully operate and maintain the current system, vs. where they are in a virtually impossible labor market,” Bagley said, referring to the Federal Transit Administration.

Staffing shortages at the MBTA have been linked to safety problems and service disruptions, including derailments, fatalities, runaway trains, cars on fire, and, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation argued, the recent slow zones that cover one-quarter of the subway system. The group said in its report that a stretched-to-thin workforce led to maintenance neglect, and Healey has said she believes “it’s dangerous to have these trains operating … at higher speeds when there are identified safety issues on the track.”

“The MBTA has initiated a series of line closures and reduced speed limits throughout its rail system,” the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation wrote. “It cannot return to full service until it hires and trains a sufficient number of dispatchers and supervisors, adds dozens of more motor persons, and resolves the myriad of problems causing slow zones across the rail system.”

As trains run slowly to avoid accidents on possibly uninspected or under-inspected tracks, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation concluded that worker shortfalls include 785 employees in critical jobs such as rail repairer, bus inspector, track laborer, engineer, fueler, and repairer line 1st class.

There are also approximately 55 fewer transit police halfway through fiscal year 2023 than in fiscal years years 2019 through 2022, even as reports of assaults on train and bus operators increase.

Though recent nationwide labor shortages have exacerbated the problem, the MBTA has been understaffed for several years. The MBTA and Federal Transit Administration each reported that since fiscal year 2020, the T has operated with vacancy rates in the excess of 10 percent of the positions they budgeted for, though they were less than 5 percent in fiscal year 2019, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report says.

[Graph: Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation]


Healey made an early promise to hire an additional 1,000 transit workers before the end of her first year in office, and she recently proposed $20 million toward the effort with other funds for MBTA hiring coming from the money state lawmakers and then-Governor Charlie Baker agreed to steer to the T last year.

The money in Healey’s supplemental budget could be earmarked for hiring and retention bonuses, increased pay for bus operators, and a marketing campaign, the MBTA says.

On April 15, the MBTA will begin offering $7,500 sign-on bonuses for positions throughout the organization, including bus operators, rail repairers, track laborers, streetcar operators, subway train operators, service technicians and fuelers, officials announced Monday, April 3.

This bonus will be a big bump up for people looking to join the T, which will expand its previous hiring campaign offering a $4,500 sign-up bonus only to bus drivers. Those existing bonuses are paid out in two installments:  $2,500 after training and $2,000 after a year of employment.

The T’s hiring team will be in Mattapan, Quincy, Lynn, and East Boston in the coming weeks to recruit job candidates. It recently doubled the size of its personnel recruiting team and created a new digital “portal” to streamline the hiring process.

MBTA officials are also “brainstorming” with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development to work with job counselors on how to promote job openings in a way that may attract more candidates with the right skills, and have been attending career fairs, they say.

“The MBTA is committed to increasing hiring, supporting our hardworking employees, and ensuring that the T is a desirable place to work,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in a statement. “A job at the MBTA opens the door to good pay and benefits, as well as long-term career development with plenty of advancement opportunities. We look forward to continued collaboration with elected officials and stakeholders to address our workforce needs and improve safety and reliability across the system.”

In addition to workforce shortfalls, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation reported that the MBTA fell short of its capital spending budget last year and may be on track to do so again this year.

The organization had a $2 billion spending target for repairs and upgrades to the system for both fiscal year 2022 and fiscal year 2023. In fiscal year 2022, actual spending came in at $1.6 billion, and the T estimates this year it could fall short by $250 million.

“While there are several reasons for falling short of the $2 billion target, workforce shortages are a factor as some workers are required for both MOW [maintenance of way] repairs and capital projects. As the MBTA shifts its focus and personnel to MOW repairs, capital spending targets are likely to struggle to reach or exceed $2 billion annually. Since the MBTA estimates that it will need to spend $27 billion or more over the next 10 years (last updated 2021) to maintain and modernize the core system, annual capital spending will have to approach $3 billion — substantially higher than the MBTA’s current capacity,” the report says.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation recognizes that some factors contributing to shortfalls at the MBTA are outside of the authority’s control, but Bagley argued that operating budget shortfalls, an aging workforce, and a cumbersome and antiquated hiring process are also to blame.

From fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2018, the MBTA intentionally reduced its total number of employees by 10 percent to balance its budget, including initiating an early retirement program in fiscal year 2017 that lowered the number of workers by 300 to help close an $80 million budget gap.

A 2019 Safety Review Panel concluded that the move resulted in a “significant brain drain” of talent at the T.

Public transit labor shortages are not unique to Massachusetts, Bagley acknowledges, while pointing out that employment in transit fell more sharply in the Bay State than other parts of the country. Employment in urban transit systems nationwide fell 7.2 percent between 2019 and 2022, compared to 17 percent in Massachusetts.

“A sufficient workforce is the most fundamental ingredient necessary for a transit service that’s safe, reliable, and serves our economy. The current gap between reality and the levels of service riders and our region deserve is startling and failing to close that gap quickly will result in a cascading series of issues that raise important questions about its capabilities going forward,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Doug Howgate. “The MBTA is a microcosm of the workforce issues facing Massachusetts today. As these shortages worsen, it will ripple through vital sectors and limit our ability to grow the Commonwealth’s economy.”


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