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Post-Pandemic Transit Recovery Hobbled by Worker Shortages

A long-simmering issue of worker shortages in public transit became most apparent following the COVID-19 pandemic which saw a high rate of departing workers citing low pay and poor working conditions.

Worker shortages have impacted pubic transit’s ability to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting service expansions and improvements designed to better serve communities and grow ridership.

Los Angeles Metro, the third largest transit operator in the nation, is short hundreds of bus or train operators, hobbling efforts to expand service into Black and brown communities, according to a report by the TransitCenter, a public transit research organization.

Similar worker shortages in Miami are preventing the public transit agency there from fully implementing its bus route redesign network, the study also found.

While worker shortages in the wake of the pandemic are hardly a unique phenomenon — numerous job sectors have struggled to fill slots — the shortages in transit are part of a decades-long decline rooted in low pay, poor working conditions and a poaching of drivers from other sectors like package delivery services.

“While the pandemic has made it worse, it’s not pandemic-driven,” said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at the TransitCenter, in an interview with Government Technology in July, when the report was released.

“It’s something that started forming really, nearly a decade ago, where we started seeing fewer people coming for job openings,” said Van Eyken.

An October study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) arrived at similar findings.

Some 84 percent of surveyed transit agencies reported worker shortages impacted service, said T.J. Doyle, vice president of communications for APTA. And like the findings by the TransitCenter, the trends affecting the shortages did not recently crop up. Across the board, an aging workforce is reaching retirement. Transit workers tend to be older than the U.S. workforce. More than 50 percent of transit workers are 45 to 65 years old, according to the TransitCenter. And nearly 15 percent of transit workers are older than 65.

Attracting new workers has been made difficult by a range of factors, but a pay scale that has not kept up with the rising cost of living in cities may be a constant deterrent. The starting pay at L.A. Metro is $20.49, according to the TransitCenter report. Starting pay at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is $29.61, which is on the high end, but still puts transit workers on the lower rungs of annual income in a city notorious for its escalating cost of living.

“Unaffordable workforce housing is something that doesn’t just impact their ability to work as transit workers, but work in the area at all,” said Van Eyken, calling attention to the pressures that high cost of living places on all blue-collar residents. “These tend to be folks that are already struggling, more so than college-educated workers.”

The decline of bus operators reflects a general decline in the quality of blue-collar jobs in America, he added. These jobs and the salaries they pay have historically been a path to the middle class, but are increasingly lower paying and more stressful.

It’s not just increasing wages that transit agencies should be considering, say experts. Benefits packages and working conditions should also be examined, tailored for a younger and modern workforce. Agencies should think about creating more pathways for advancement, and improve scheduling so that workers can have a better home-life balance, both studies advocate.

“Agencies are working to streamline hiring processes, hiring on a conditional basis to get employees into training programs, and providing and paying for CDL training and testing,” said Doyle.

“And agencies are improving workplace culture through employee recognition programs and mentoring programs that show employees they are valued and how they fit into the organization,” he added, going on to cite statistics showing 55 percent of agencies have increased pay and 43 percent are offering hiring bonuses.

But challenges remain. The rapid growth of e-retail and on-demand delivery in the last decade has only exacerbated transit’s hiring headwinds as agencies compete for workers from largely the same candidate pool. Delivery services like FedEx, Amazon and UPS tend to offer more flexible scheduling, increased pay and opportunities for bonuses, the TransitCenter study found.

“I don’t think I saw predictions of this, but when you think about it, it does make sense,” said Van Eyken, commenting on the competition from private-sector delivery companies. Those jobs can also offer less interactions with the public, compared to, say, a bus driver’s job.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.