Good news for commuters: The T is on track to have enough employees to operate its trains and buses more reliably.
The bad news: It could take the agency more than 10 years to get there.
Federal regulators and state leaders have said that staffing up is one of the top priorities for increasing safety and reliability at the MBTA, but growing the workforce has been and is a massive challenge for the agency. At Thursday’s board of directors’ subcommittee meetings, agency leaders revealed they are falling far short of their staffing goal for this fiscal year, and will not meet the goal for the next fiscal year, which starts in July, unless the current rate of hiring and retention improves dramatically.
The T has added just 141 people to its staff in the last 10 months, when accounting for people who have left the agency, chief human resources officer Tom Waye told board members.
At that pace, it will take the T more than a decade to fill the 7,643 budgeted positions for next fiscal year with active employees, according to calculations by transit advocates and the Globe. The T currently has 5,658 active employees, according to spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.
General manager Phillip Eng acknowledged the hiring and retention challenges in a phone interview and said he is working hard to remove roadblocks and grow the staff.
“These are not insurmountable things,” he said. “These are things that are within our control.”
The shortage is particularly acute for bus drivers, Waye told board members Thursday. The T said last year that it would begin increasing bus service this year as part of its bus network redesign plan, with the aim of achieving 25 percent more service over five years. Instead, the agency has slashed service and continued to cancel trips.
Perks like a $7,500 hiring bonus, commercial driver’s license training, and tuition reimbursement have not fixed the problem. Waye said the T is seeing a lot of bus driver turnover particularly during people’s first year on the job.
“Split shifts continue to be a challenge for us,” he said, referring to shifts for new bus drivers that require them to work morning and evening peak hours, often without time to go home in between. “There’s some issues around the competitive pay.”
The Globe has previously reported that starting pay for MBTA bus drivers lags behind large peer transit agencies in the United States, and even smaller regional transit authorities in Massachusetts. A Globe review of six large US transit agencies earlier this year found the T’s peers have had more success restoring pre-pandemic bus service. 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.
Pay, mandatory part-time employment, and split shifts are all areas Eng said the T is focusing on in its negotiations with unions.
“Obviously, time is of the essence,” he said. “So I’m going to be pushing to get these decisions made more quickly.”
There are signs that things are improving, Eng said.
The T grew its bus driver staff in April after months of losses, according to Waye’s presentation Thursday. Waye is now including inactive bus drivers who are on leave in its count of bus driver staff, a change from previous months that puts the T closer to its goal on paper. In reality, the T added just 24 active bus drivers since the previous month, according to figures provided by Pesaturo in an e-mail. By both measurements, the T is still hundreds short of its goal for this fiscal year, which ends in seven weeks.
In the past few months, the T has been on-boarding more people than it did in previous months, Eng said. The T held job fairs in Mattapan, Quincy, Revere, Boston, Lynn, and at UMass Dartmouth over the past month.
At events Eng attended in Mattapan and Revere, he said, candidates reported they are hoping to start working faster than the T is able to process their applications. In a recent briefing with human resources, Eng said, he was told that people in charge of initial resume reviews to check if applicants meet basic qualifications are overwhelmed.
“Internally, we’re working on our process, how do we streamline that?” he said. “Someone doesn’t have enough hours in the day to do everything that we’ve asked them to do. And it’s my responsibility to find a way to alleviate them of that and give them assistance to keep the process moving.”
At stake is MBTA service, which has deteriorated dramatically.
Last June, the MBTA cut subway service by more than 20 percent, saying the reduction would be in place for the summer while it hired more dispatchers. Then, earlier this year, the agency said it doesn’t have enough trains or operators to increase service back to pre-pandemic levels. More than 20 percent of the T’s subway tracks have speed restrictions, according to the agency’s dashboard, further slowing commutes.
Similarly, the T has cut bus service repeatedly since December 2021 and continues to routinely cancel scheduled trips due to staffing shortages.
The T’s hiring woes come as employers across the country struggle to fill open positions.
Federal transit officials told the T last year that the agency was dangerously understaffed in some departments, estimating that the T may be short as many as 2,000 employees.
Is the T confident it will reach its staffing goals for next fiscal year? Eng said it’s too soon to say. However, he’s seen other agencies overcome similar hiring challenges in New York, he said.
“Our folks here are just as dedicated and creative and we’re going to work hard to do exactly what I’ve seen others do,” he said.
“This is just the beginning, obviously, of us continuing to further look at our processes, look at the challenges of why, and continuing to make those modifications with the goal of fulfilling our needs sooner rather than later.”