As the MBTA tries to aggressively staff up, the agency faces a growing hurdle: The workers they already have are leaving faster than before.
The transit agency is losing employees at an annual clip of roughly 13 percent, an increase from previous years and one that is hurting its efforts to buttress a stretched workforce, MBTA officials told lawmakers during an oversight hearing Monday at the State House.
The setting marked General Manager Phillip Eng‘s first time testifying before a legislative panel since he started in April, during which he and other officials offered insight — albeit limited in some cases — into the efforts to increase the size of an agency that federal officials and others have said could need thousands of new employees.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation released a study in April that said the agency must hire 2,800 workers in the next 12 months for the system to be fully operational. According to a Federal Transit Administration report last summer, inspectors’ interviews with T staff indicated the agency may be short as many as 2,000 employees.
Eng said he did not have a definitive count of how many vacancies the MBTA has. But filling them remains both one of the T’s top priorities and most stubborn challenges.
The agency has 6,315 active employees, a T spokesman said Monday, and 7,643 budgeted positions for next fiscal year. The Globe reported in May that at its pace of net hiring, it could take the T more than a decade to fill all its budgeted spots for next fiscal year.
Eng blamed the departure of workers for the T’s struggles to meet its own hiring goals, saying “were it not for attrition,” the T would be on pace. The 13 percent attrition rate is “higher than normal,” he said, and could be attributed to a range of things, from retirements to employees leaving a “very stressful career” for the private sector.
Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said in an e-mail there have been 848 “employee separations” so far this fiscal year, which ends Friday. That’s 325 more than at this point last fiscal year, and 392 more than the average over the previous three years, he said.
“We just happen to be in a cycle where it’s higher than in the past,” Eng told the Globe. “We are stretched thin across many different areas.”
On other topics Monday, Eng at times did not have details for lawmakers.
He could not give lawmakers a specific amount of money needed to put the T into a so-called state of good repair. He did not directly answer a question of how often inspections are done at T stations, saying he is in the process of hiring a new “head of stations” position to assess inspections system-wide. Removing slow zones on the T remains one of the T’s “biggest challenges,” with the agency lifting nearly 100, Eng said. But data the T publishes online show that the number of current speed restrictions is higher than the number it had a month ago.
The MBTA has faced intense scrutiny from the federal government dating back more than a year after the Federal Transit Administration first increased its oversight of the MBTA, saying it was “extremely concerned” about safety after a series of incidents on the transit system.
The FTA ordered immediate changes last June when it found, among other things, that the T’s operations control center was dangerously understaffed, and stretches of its subway tracks had defects dating back years, requiring trains to travel at slower speeds. Then, in August, the federal agency finished its safety management inspection of the T, reaching a similar conclusion of a past review of the T: Its focus on long-term projects had come at the expense of day-to-day-operations and safety.
The system has continued to struggle. The T has repeatedly cut bus service over the last year and canceled scheduled trips as it struggles to hire and retain drivers. In March, a ceiling panel fell at the T’s Harvard Station, nearly striking a passenger. Two months later, obsolete utility equipment at the same station fell and hit another, who has said she intends to sue the agency. A Green Line trolley derailed earlier this month.
The T this month also had to submit a re-do of its worker safety plan to federal regulators after its initial proposal was rejected as “insufficient.”
Federal officials had demanded that the MBTA make urgent safety reforms after trains came dangerously close to hitting track workers several times over a span of about four weeks in March and April. In another incident, a T lineman was injured at Revere Beach station on April 13 after a 2,000-pound weight fell on him.
Eng on Monday touted so-called right-of-way training that the T launched, with nearly 2,000 employees and contractors receiving it in a little over a month.
The Legislature held several of its own oversight hearings last year before issuing a lengthy report that included a series of potential changes the state could pursue. Among them was shifting safety oversight of the MBTA from the state’s Department of Public Utilities to an entity that is “walled off” from the governor’s administration.
Gina Fiandaca, transportation secretary under Governor Maura Healey, did not directly address questions Monday of whether the Healey administration believes such oversight should be moved somewhere else.
“The current structure we have calls for DPU oversight, so we are working closely with them,” she said.
Notably absent at Monday’s hearing was the FTA itself. A top federal transportation official has three times declined an invitation to appear before the transportation committee, citing, among others things, the “need to protect information related to the agency’s deliberative processes,” Democratic lawmakers said.
“I’m disappointed that the FTA has decided again to boycott this hearing,” said Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and the House chairman of the transportation committee.