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MBTA falls behind peer transit agencies on hiring bus drivers, restoring service

The T announced last week it will soon offer $7,500 bonuses for new hires, up from $4,500 offered previously for bus drivers.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The MBTA bus driver workforce is shrinking. And the issue has forced the agency to cut service repeatedly over the last year.

For its part, the T has said the shortage mirrors most transit agencies nationwide. But a Globe review of six large US transit agencies found the T’s peers have had more success digging themselves out of the crisis. And they’re all doing something different than the T: They allow new drivers to start as full-time employees, giving them an opportunity to make higher wages immediately.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City, New Jersey Transit, and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have hired and retained enough drivers to restore pre-pandemic service. (New York and New Jersey agencies restored service in summer 2020.) Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are well on their way, each with about 95 percent of the bus drivers needed to restore pre-pandemic service, according to spokespeople. Chicago Transit Authority declined to provide the number of bus drivers needed to restore service, but a spokesperson said the agency has about 86 percent of its budgeted bus driver positions filled.

Meanwhile, the number of bus drivers employed by the T continues to decline despite an aggressive hiring campaign that began in December 2021. The T is down to 1,460 bus drivers this month, about 87 percent of its pre-pandemic staff, according to T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo. And it’s hundreds short of its goal to have 1,823 this year.

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Pesaturo said the T is “actively evaluating hiring bus operators full time” in order to increase service.

“The MBTA is committed to working toward solutions that address our workforce needs and improve safety and reliability across the system,” Pesaturo said in an e-mail.

The T announced last week it will soon offer $7,500 bonuses for new hires, up from $4,500 offered previously for bus drivers. It is also providing commercial driver’s license training to new applicants, tuition reimbursement, and has raised the 10-week training wage.

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But even with new-hire bonuses and perks, the T still doesn’t pay workers a wage that matches that of other large transit agencies, nor does it allow new drivers to work full time. The T pays $22.21 per hour and only allows drivers to work 30 hours per week when they start. Pesaturo said new drivers are able to switch to full-time employment after three to six months.

The other large transit agencies — MTA in New York City, NJ Transit in New Jersey, Metro in Los Angeles, WMATA in Washington, CTA in Chicago, and SEPTA in Philadelphia — all hire drivers as full-time employees. And only SEPTA offers a lower hourly starting wage than the T.

“A one-time bonus is nice, it helps get people in the door,” said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at TransitCenter, a national public transportation advocacy organization, who authored a report last year about how transit agencies can better hire and retain drivers. “Ultimately, when folks see what their wages are going to be and what their job conditions are going to be, they still might balk at becoming an operator if they don’t see it as a career that allows them to live a comfortable life.”

As the T’s bus driver staff continues to shrink, the agency’s goal to increase bus service by 25 percent over the next five years appears out of reach. To hit the goal, the agency would need 2,212 drivers, Pesaturo said, about 750 more than it has now. Service increases were supposed to start this year, but to do that the T needs 1,823 drivers, Pesaturo said.

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The T’s bus driver shortage is part of a larger hiring problem facing the agency. A report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation last week said the T must hire 2,800 workers in the next 12 months for the system to be fully operational.

Research from TransitCenter found that from September 2021 to August 2022, the number of jobs accessible to Boston residents via public transit has been steadily declining, and access for Black and Hispanic residents slid the most. The researchers attribute the decline to MBTA bus and subway service cuts that have significantly lengthened commutes.

Governor Maura Healey is asking the Legislature for $20 million to help address the MBTA’s hiring woes. When asked how the money would help solve the crisis and what is being done in the meantime, Karissa Hand, a spokeswoman for the Healey administration, deferred to the MBTA.

Jim Evers, president of the Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents bus drivers, said the union is confident an agreement can be worked out with the governor and Phillip Eng, the new general manager of the T who starts Monday.

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“Naturally, the Local 589 members who are on the front lines of working within a system that has been neglected and underfunded for too many years are strongly in favor of all steps that would help make MBTA wages and benefits stronger and more attractive to new applicants,” he said in a statement.

A report by the American Public Transit Association last year found that 92 percent of the 112 transit agencies it surveyed struggled with hiring, and agencies reported that bus operator positions were the most difficult to fill.

Los Angeles County public transit was one of those agencies. Short more than 500 bus drivers at the beginning of last year, according to a spokesperson, the agency cut bus service by more than 10 percent. At the time, bus drivers were making $17.75 per hour, StreetsBlog reported. By last summer, the hourly wage jumped to $23.

As the wage increased, so did the number of bus drivers on staff. The agency increased service in June, then again in October, and then restored full pre-pandemic service levels in December, a spokesperson said. The starting wage for bus drivers, who can begin as full-time employees, is now $23.33 per hour.

Even if the T offered full-time employment to new drivers, their annual income would still be short of the $46,993 minimum required to cover basic expenses for someone living in the Boston area without any dependents, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

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Of the transit agencies APTA surveyed, more than half reported that compensation was the leading reason workers quit.

The T’s driver shortage isn’t just hurting riders, who face longer wait times and report having to sometimes forgo wages. It’s likely also affecting drivers currently on staff, said Van Eyken. Those workers have long had to endure split shifts — working both morning and evening peak hours, often without enough time to go home in between.

“There are fewer people to work, and the same work burden,” he said. “One of the best things agencies can do … is hire more drivers.”

Former secretary of transportation Jim Aloisi, who serves on the board of the public transportation advocacy group TransitMatters, said offering a hiring bonus “is not enough.” He wants to see the T eliminate split shifts for new workers and hire them full time.

“If [bonuses] were going to work it would have worked,” he said. “It’s all about the quality of the working conditions.”


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