An unusually large operator shortage caused evening commute delays on nearly 30 Muni routes across San Francisco both Monday and Tuesday evenings, causing headaches for tens of thousands of riders, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.
So why did so many Muni operators call out sick? Was it a repeat of the 2014 “sick-out” mass contract negotiation protest, where drivers called out sick en masse because striking was illegal? Was it a particularly brutal flu going around?
No, said the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni. It was combined absenteeism due to the Super Bowl and Chinese New Year, which was Tuesday.
“We typically see lower operator levels on the days after the Super Bowl and Lunar New Year,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose in an email Wednesday.
Those delays were wide-reaching.
Trains were missing on the J-Church and F-Market and Wharves routes, and the Powell-Hyde and California cable car lines saw significant gaps. Numerous buses sat undriven, causing “extended wait times” according to Muni. Some routes were delayed just on Monday or Tuesday, but most were delayed on both.
But Muni seems to be out of the woods, for now.
“It appears the levels are back to normal this morning,” Rose said. “As we work to recruit, train and hire more operators we will have more staff to call upon to fill those runs.”
Notably, the absences come amidst a stark operator shortage for the agency, which has struggled to retain operators under its 2014 contract, which extended the time it takes for newly hired operators to reach full pay from 18 months to 48 months.
— SFMTA (@sfmta_muni) February 4, 2019
ATTN: The following routes may experience extended IB and OB wait times during this evening's rush hour: #JChurch, #FMarket, 1, 2, 3, 5, 5R, 9R, 12, 14, 14R, 21, 22, 25, 28R, 29, 30, 38R, 43, 57, Powell-Hyde & California Cable Car lines.
— SFMTA (@sfmta_muni) February 5, 2019
In the tweets above, SFMTA details the bus, train and cable car routes delayed both Monday (top) and Tuesday (bottom) due to operator absenteeism.
Under those conditions, some operators get trained by Muni, work for a short amount of time, then find new jobs with higher pay using the Class B licenses The City helped them obtain. A new contract with Muni operators is expected to be negotiated this year.
Muni’s operator union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Phil Chin, the head of Chinatown TRIP, a transportation advocacy group focused on the need of San Francisco’s Chinese community, laughed out loud when remarking that Muni had ample time to plan for Chinese New Year, which after all, is an annual and expected occurrence.
Chin used to drive a Muni bus himself in the 1970s, before becoming a leading advocate for social justice in the Chinese community. Back in his day, most of the drivers were black, he said. But now that Muni’s driver demographic is so heavily Asian, the agency should probably plan around Asian holidays, he cautioned.
“If I was in charge of assigning drivers, I’d certainly plan for those two days,” Chin said. “Especially now that I think about a quarter of Muni’s drivers are Asian, if not more.”