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Now arriving: Fewer buses. Amid national labor shortage, cuts hit MBTA

A shortage of MBTA drivers means some bus routes will have less service.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The nationwide labor shortage is now coming to a bus stop near you.

Hamstrung by a severe worker shortage, the MBTA announced service cuts on Tuesday that will take effect later this month on some bus lines. This fall, the MBTA has already been canceling about one of every 20 scheduled bus trips because it doesn’t have enough drivers to operate them, the agency said.

Come Dec. 19, three bus routes will operate with more scheduled frequency, 31 with less scheduled frequency, and 40 others will have changes in their scheduled timing. Under the new schedule, service levels will be reduced overall by about 3 percent, said agency spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.

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The broader labor shortage has hampered numerous industries this year, as workers quit their jobs at record rates. In October, 4.2 million people quit their jobs, down slightly from historic highs in August and September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Front-line and low-wage workers are much more likely to leave, a recent Mercer study found, to seek out safer, higher-quality occupations with better pay and more job security.

Bus drivers have been working in potentially dangerous situations and dealing with stringent safety protocols throughout the pandemic. At first, they were deemed “essential” and hailed as heroes, but the praise was fleeting. Now, the transportation, warehousing, and utilities industry group has one of the highest job opening rates in the country.

The MBTA bus network will be the hardest hit by the Dec. 19 changes. The cuts will not affect the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Lines.

Bus lines 19, 38 and SL1 will see increased frequency. The MBTA chose to bolster those routes because they’ve experienced chronic overcrowding, said Melissa Dullea, MBTA senior director of service planning, at a public meeting Wednesday.

The 66 and 111 buses will see mostly decreased frequency with increased frequency on Sunday mornings and afternoons, respectively. The Mattapan trolley will increase service after 11:30 p.m. on weekends and decrease during morning and evening weekday peak periods.

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The bus lines that will see decreased service include the 23 and the 29, which Boston plans to make fare-free starting early next year. Forty bus lines will see their schedules change, including the 28 bus, which is currently operating fare-free under a pilot program that Boston plans to continue next year.

A full list of the changes can be found on the MBTA’s website.

Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said the agency has not been able to attract enough workers to meet demands for service. The MBTA put a hiring freeze in place as it cut bus service during the pandemic, and currently has 1,558 bus drivers. The agency needs about 300 more to restore full prepandemic bus service, said Pesaturo.

Weekday bus ridership during the week of Nov. 29 was 64 percent of what it was during the last week in February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold, according to MBTA data maintained by MassDOT.

“These service changes are not a cost-control measure,” Poftak said in a statement. “The MBTA is budgeted for a full level of service, and ready to add back services when we have hired and trained new bus and train operators.”

A T ad in the Back Bay Orange Line station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At 16 locations across Boston, Danvers, Somerville, and Woburn, new MBTA billboards reading “Want a route to a better life?” have aimed to lure passersby to a job application at the agency since the week of Thanksgiving. Transit advocates say the campaign isn’t enough.

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The starting hourly wage for an MBTA bus driver is $21.13 with a work schedule of 30 hours per week after completing eight 40-hour weeks of training at $15.86 per hour.

That’s far below the living wage in Boston, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, which ranges from $19.17 per hour for a 40-hour work week for a single adult without kids to $65.93 per hour for a 40-hour work week for a single adult with three children.

Jarred Johnson, executive director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, said the MBTA’s low starting wages and split schedules for new drivers that can keep them away from home for more than 12 hours at a time are hiring barriers for the T.

“I think we’re in a new labor market and there are new employers like Amazon, UberEats, all these other options that are out there,” he said. “You have to adapt to a new labor market.”

Jim Evers, president of the Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents MBTA bus drivers, said the union strongly opposes service cuts. Evers said the union is in “active talks” with the MBTA about making improvements to wages.

“Cuts are not the solution to building a public transit system that serves the public good,” Evers said in a statement. “For several years now, we have urged MBTA management to convert part-time jobs to full-time jobs, to meet the needs of our transit schedules. We look forward to working with the MBTA to proactively address the present recruitment issue — we want to resolve the negative impact service cuts have on riders, workers, and our communities.”

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Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City, called the service cuts “a step in the wrong direction” and said the MBTA should instead be increasing bus frequency and growing demand.

“The MBTA — and the Commonwealth — must do more to attract and retain qualified job seekers, including looking to other markets for emerging best practices, increasing financial incentives, and if needed, hiring private bus services to supplant underserved routes,” Dimino said in a statement.

Other transit agencies are rolling out bonuses to fill similar worker shortages. New Jersey Transit is offering a one-time payment of $6,000 and Houston’s public transit system is offering $4,000 for bus drivers, The New York Times recently reported. The MBTA is considering offering sign-on and referral bonuses and is offering to pay for commercial drivers’ license permit testing fees, said Pesaturo.

Johnson said the Legislature should consider allowing MBTA retirees to return to work temporarily and using federal COVID-19 relief funds for bonuses.

“When you look at what’s been the success story of the T in the pandemic, it’s been the bus,” he said.

The T participated in 20 online and in-person career fairs across the region this fall, according to a news release. The agency recently created a human resources team dedicated to hiring vehicle operators, especially MBTA bus operators.

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Poftak urged prospective candidates to visit the T’s website.

Katie Johnston of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her @taydolven.