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MBTA expands hiring incentives following critical report

Passengers exited an MBTA Blue Line train at the end of March.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a push to add badly needed employees, the MBTA said Monday it is raising its signing bonus to $7,500 and expanding the number of jobs that qualify, following a scathing report from a watchdog group that highlighted a critical worker shortage that could prolong service disruptions.

Hours after announcing the increased signing bonus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority released a new three-year plan for safety upgrades that would bring the aging transit system in line with federal reporting requirements. That plan came in response to a sharply critical assessment last year by the Federal Transit Administration.

The moves by the T came after the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation released a study Monday that said the agency must hire 2,800 workers in the next 12 months for the system to be fully operational, but the goal is unlikely to be met due to the state’s low unemployment rate.

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“The MBTA is committed to increasing hiring, supporting our hardworking employees, and ensuring that the T is a desirable place to work,” the agency said in a statement.

Once limited to bus operators, and topping out at $4,500, the expanded hiring incentive program starting April 15 will also apply to rail repair workers, track laborers, streetcar operators, subway train operators, service technicians, and fuelers, the MBTA said.

The MBTA will have “hiring teams” in Mattapan, Quincy, Lynn, and East Boston in the near future, officials said.

The Taxpayers Foundation, in the latest of a series of reports on the financial and operational status of the critical transportation system, said its analysis of MBTA payroll data, state demographics, and studies by both industry groups and nonprofits indicate daunting challenges for T efforts to boost its workforce.

“The MBTA is struggling to find the talent it needs to deliver full bus and rapid transit services today, let alone the expanded services being planned or proposed,” the study found. “Factoring in the length of time to qualify, hire and train new employees, these shortages are likely to persist, causing services to run less frequently than a year ago.”

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The study’s findings came as no surprise to one transit specialist, who said the T’s problems around staffing, infrastructure, and safety have been getting worse for years, leaving the agency desperately trying to play catch-up.

“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “Every report that goes to the control board has been pointing this out.”

The foundation, citing an industry study, said 35 percent of the people offered jobs by a transportation agency reject the offer — twice the rate for other industries — and that 45 percent of people leaving a job in transit completely exit from the field.

“The MBTA now finds itself with separate challenges that each worsen the workforce pinch: first, people are less attracted to public transit employment when presented with options and second, its aging workforce and generous pension benefits lead to a growing number of retirements,’’ the foundation said Monday.

As of the end of March, the T’s headcount was 5,756 while the upcoming fiscal year budget calls for 7,600 workers on the agency payroll “to backfill 1,088 current vacancies, address safety matters, add staffing for bus network design, operate the green line extension (GLX), and implement its fare transformation program,” the foundation report said.

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With 1,000 people expected to leave the T due to retirement and other reasons, the agency “has to hire 2,800 workers within the next 12 months,” the foundation said.

Thompson said the labor shortage is being felt by large and small transit systems across the country. A March report by the American Public Transportation Association found 96 percent of 190 transit agencies the group surveyed reported a shortage of workers, with work schedules and compensation listed as the leading reasons why people quit.

“To say that this is unique to the T would be inaccurate,” Thompson said in an interview Monday. “The labor shortages have many root causes, but the heart of this is that some of these jobs are really tough, and we need to be looking at compensation structures and the hours folks are working. These are fixable problems ... but it often requires more money and a stronger strategy.”

Thompson said it sometimes takes a couple of months for a person to go through the hiring process at the T, likely another factor that turns some people away.

According to the Taxpayers Foundation, when compared to average numbers over the past four fiscal years, the T currently has 320 fewer full- and part-time bus operators; 120 fewer bus operators in training; 125 fewer streetcar and rapid transit motor persons; and 90 fewer streetcar and rapid transit motor persons in training.

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Among the objectives listed in the MBTA’s three-year safety plan that was released Monday, the agency aims to build a “staff for a resilient, efficient, and effective workforce” by January next year. The plan did not provide a specific number of employees the T aims to hire.

The plan aims to reduce the amount of track that is under speed restrictions, but not until June, and the MBTA Operations Control Center isn’t expected to be fully staffed until July of 2024, likely affecting subway service.

In January, the Globe reported that a year-long hiring campaign for bus drivers failed to draw the hoped-for response, a worker shortage that is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic riders.

Governor Maura Healey has asked for $20 million in her supplemental budget request to bolster the MBTA’s hiring efforts, the agency said. Recruitment efforts have had some success, with 676 people hired during the first half of this fiscal year, compared to 344 new employees during the first half of the previous year.

“Employee retirement is cyclical and is incorporated into the MBTA’s ongoing workforce planning and retention efforts,” agency officials said.

Incoming MBTA general manager Phillip Eng is assuming leadership of a system that has been hobbled by serious safety concerns and internal management failures that have hampered effective responses to myriad issues, the study found.

The agency needs $12 billion “to upgrade and modernize its existing infrastructure within the next decade,” the foundation said. Even more money is needed to improve “climate resiliency” and pay for the Green Line extension and pending expansion of commuter rail to the South Coast.

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“Yet even though the T’s ability to operate services and upgrade its infrastructure could be crippled by its financial plight, lawmakers have yet to identify a dedicated and reliable revenue source to address these looming risks,” the foundation said.

Many of the issues highlighted in the report, including the concerns over filling job vacancies in critical positions, have been acknowledged by MBTA officials.

An earlier foundation report also called for the MBTA to abandon its historic practice of providing “drip feeds” of information to passengers in favor of a more forthright public information approach.

“For good reason, the riding public has become increasingly distrustful,” the study found. “It is crucial that the T be candid and fully transparent in communicating and explaining the reasons and plans for such events and their impacts on services. Without rebuilding public trust, the MBTA cannot rebuild itself.”

Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him @JREbosglobe. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.