WASHINGTON - A surging omicron variant has sent ailing transit agencies into a heightened sense of crisis, prompting a fresh round of service cuts that have left passengers unsure whether they have a ride to work or school.
Throughout the pandemic, bus operators have transported essential workers to jobs and riders who lack other alternatives to their destinations. But in recent weeks, the fast-spreading virus has proliferated throughout transit agencies across the country, sickening more drivers than at any other point in the pandemic as frustrated riders wonder whether their bus will arrive.
Many transit agencies are paying higher wages while paring back schedules, reducing service for a second time after substantial cuts early in the pandemic. This time, transit officials say there's likely no path to normal levels until omicron subsides and workers are healthy enough to get behind the wheel.
Scott Bogren, executive director of the D.C.-based Community Transportation Association of America, said member agencies have reported having as many as 40 percent of their operators out sick. He said at least three top executives of smaller transit agencies have told him they have driven buses to keep some routes open.
"Every agency is affected," Bogren said.
The lower levels of service on Metrobus have left D.C. resident Rolanda Young with a new daily worry: whether her 11-year-old son, Rohan, will have a reliable ride to school.
She had just settled in at work when he messaged her Friday morning.
The bus didn't come. The temperature was hovering near 40 degrees and Rohan had been standing at the bus stop for 50 minutes.
Every day, the M6 Metrobus takes him from a stop about a block from his home in Southeast Washington to Eliot-Hine Middle School, on the other side of the Anacostia River. The sixth-grader likes to arrive about 8:25 a.m. to grab breakfast before the bell rings 15 minutes later.
Young couldn't leave work to give her son a ride, so she told him to skip school.
"Just forget it," she told Rohan. "I'm not going to keep having you stand outside when the bus is not there."
Despite early signs pointing to caseloads leveling off - and cases declining in parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic - the number of infections nationwide is up 30% compared with a week earlier. Transit officials say they need fewer workers to call out sick before turning attention to boosting bus frequencies.
Bogren and other transit leaders say the omicron variant has proven especially troublesome for transit agencies because of its ability to cause breakthrough infections among the vaccinated as the industry simultaneously suffers from a labor shortage. Protections that transit officials began in 2020, such as restricting bus boarding to rear doors to limit interactions between customers and bus operators, were lifted months ago.
John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation's largest guild for transportation workers, said some local chapters are calling on transit leaders to reinstate those protections. He said nearly 8,000 of his roughly 200,000 members are absent because of the coronavirus.
"Many of the workers are doing the right thing and are stepping up to work a lot of long hours to try to keep up the service," Costa said. "But it's rough out there for these operators, you know, just like it is for front-line workers like hospital workers."
The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) in the Detroit area had ramped up bus service to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels in recent months after cutting back to 30 percent at the start of the pandemic. But absenteeism driven by the latest omicron surge forced the agency to reduce about a quarter of its service, said Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer.
The virus spike is exacerbating a staffing shortage of 80 unfilled positions. Many agencies are also facing worker burnout, early retirements and fierce competition for commercial drivers from shipping companies and retail services.
SMART has used federal stimulus money to recruit and retain workers, paying operators $7.50 an hour more than their base salaries, but Cramer said the agency can't keep pace with the unfilled shifts sparked by omicron.
"We've tried to hold the line. We've got all these incentives to try to make some progress on that, but it still is our biggest factor," he said. "It's a lot easier for this spike to make a big impact because we're already working right on the edge of that margin."
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in the Boston area, which has dropped about 1 in every 20 scheduled trips because of omicron and other winter illness-related absences, is ramping up hiring. A class of 27 new bus operators started earlier this month, and another new class will start later this month, but MBTA is a long way from being fully staffed.
"The goal is to expand the number of new bus operators by 180, but the tight labor market is presenting some challenges," MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said.
In the Washington region, Metro also is suffering from a bus operator shortage, but it's the omicron surge that has overwhelmed the agency. Metro is simultaneously dealing with a train shortage on its rail system with more than half of its fleet suspended amid a federal safety investigation.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the agency has never had as many people out sick during the pandemic as it has over the past three weeks.
The driver shortage has forced Metrobus to shift to a weekend schedule full time, a service decrease of about 25%. Other transit agencies in the Washington region, including RideOn in Montgomery County, Md., and DASH in Alexandria, Va., have also reduced service because of a lack of bus operators.
Some riders say they are sympathetic but also struggle to understand how an agency like Metro, the nation's third-largest transit system, has trouble staffing a schedule that it reduced to levels it had deemed manageable. Five D.C. Council members sent a letter to Wiedefeld on Wednesday after parents called them to complain that their children had been left stranded at bus stops.
"We already prepared for the weekend schedule," Young said, "but Metro should do their part and stick to the schedule."
Metrobus operators such as Paul White, who has driven for the agency for 24 years, said he has never known another time when absences were so high. Morale is low among drivers, he said. Routes get dropped with every new absence, creating confusion and chaos about how to prop up the system.
"It's like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," he said.
White has taken to wiping his bus down with disinfectant before his shift and several times throughout, but he said he worries his virus-free streak could come to an end. Too many passengers continue to flout a federal order requiring masks be worn onboard transit vehicles.
"I do a lot of praying," he said.
Riders, meanwhile, said they fear losing their jobs when buses are late or don't show up. Cedric Houston said he waited more than 45 minutes for a ride last week.
The 27-year-old relies on the Z8 Metrobus to carry him between his home in the White Oak area of Montgomery County to his job at an Amazon grocery store in Chevy Chase, Md. His Honda caught on fire last year, and he is saving up to replace it.
Until then, he said, he will have to wait at a bus stop - and hope the bus arrives.
“You never know if the bus is really going to show up,” he said.