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Report: Poor pay for bus drivers caused ‘chronic staffing deficit’ that led to summer Muni meltdown

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Muni riders experienced citywide delays over the summer. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The City’s transit agency pays Muni operators so poorly that new recruits are fleeing the agency in record numbers.

That high attrition rate helped cause this summer’s Muni meltdown, when a shortage of drivers left buses sitting in transit yards across The City, causing systemwide delays and stranding thousands of commuters.

And the operator shortage is structural, deep, and long in the making, leaving the agency in a “vulnerable” position where any outstanding event, like the Twin Peaks Tunnel Closure this summer that required many substitute buses for out-of-service trains, can rock transit service.

In short, without change, Muni riders will continue to see bad service.

That’s the dire picture the San Francisco Budget Legislative Analyst painted in a report presented to the Board of Supervisors Wednesday morning at a hearing requested by Supervisor Vallie Brown that could have an impact on 2019 union contract negotiations.

“I didn’t realize you didn’t even make enough money to qualify for affordable housing,” Brown told Muni operators at the hearing. “We need to make sure that once we hire and train an operator, that we can keep them.”

“The City is not paying enough. You need more money,” she told operators.

Roger Marenco, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni drivers, said the report validates everything his members have been telling management since 2014. He called the report “devastating” to Muni management.

“This is a neutral third party entity, letting the city and county of San Francisco know if you want to help Muni, help the operators,” he said.

SEE RELATED: Muni suffering major citywide service gaps due to operator shortage

The summer’s breakdown in Muni service was revealed by a San Francisco Examiner investigation in July, from a review of data from every bus line across The City over a period of months.

At the time, officials said shutting down the Twin Peaks Tunnel for required maintenance and using bus shuttles to substitute for K, L and M trains left Muni without enough bus drivers to maintain citywide bus service levels.

At the hearing, Ed Reiskin, SFMTA’s top official, told Brown that the agency saw the service dip coming, but underestimated how severe it would be.

“Service is not what it should have been,” Reiskin said.

Reiskin also acknowledged SFMTA is facing “significant challenges” in getting people to apply to be Muni operators in the first place, let alone in retaining them once they are hired, and pointed to various efforts SFMTA is undertaking with The City to shorten the lengthy operator hiring process.

But the new legislative analyst report reveals Muni’s operator shortage runs deep.

SFMTA “has a structural Transit Operator staffing deficit,” the summary of the report reads. The agency only has 1,894 operators available to run its buses and trains, but requires 2,305 — that’s a deficit of 411 positions. Moreover, the shortfall isn’t new: it reaches back to “at least” September 2016, the legislative analyst wrote. It was merely exacerbated by the Twin Peaks Tunnel closure.

And, the legislative analyst added in a warning, “the Transit Operator staffing gap does not appear to be ending soon, as the applicant pool for Transit Operator positions has been on the decline in recent years.” The numbers bear that out: There were 4,055 Muni operator applicants in 2014 but only 2,135 so far in 2018.

Retention of operators after the first year has also plummeted. Roughly 46 new hires out of 490 training graduates between September 2015 and April 2018 left Muni in their first year. When annual Muni operator attrition from retirees and other employees quitting is factored in, those numbers barely keep Muni staffing at sufficient levels.

SEE RELATED: SFMTA workers struggle to meet basic needs

The biggest problem the analyst identified in retaining operators? Wages.

Muni operators’ most recently negotiated contract in 2014 led to new operators seeing an increased “step” in their wages, which is the measure of how long it takes a city employee to be paid their full base pay.

Operators used to enjoy an 18-month step, but after the 2014 contract negotiated by former Mayor Willie Brown and former Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Eric Williams, who has since stepped down, the step was increased to five years.

That was a money-saving move, but the legislative analyst reports it also led operators to flee the job. Most make about $36,000 in take-home pay after taxes in their first year, 63 percent of their full five-year pay, which, coupled with inflexible days off for childcare and other considerations have seen operators leaving the agency, unsatisfied with their quality of life.

The legislative analyst noted that while Muni workers are by national standards “fairly well-paid” compared to bus drivers in other cities, “current wage rates are insufficient to allow employees to negotiate the San Francisco housing market.” About 45 percent of operators live outside San Francisco, according to the report, which found that long commutes “may be an additional factor” limiting the luster of driving for Muni.

Ultimately, the report recommends giving operators a raise as a shorter annual “step” for new hires as a way to increase retention.

Muni operators also testified at the hearing that while pay is a significant factor in why operators leave, agency culture plays a factor too.

One operator, Carla Romero, said she was sexually assaulted while on the job by a mentally unstable man who appeared homeless.

An 18-year cable car operator, Greg Ellis, told the supervisors that the San Francisco Police Department often doesn’t show up when operators call for help. He said many new operators join the agency to get free bus-driver training, then take their new Class B licenses to drive for transit agencies in more affordable cities.

Ryan Banks, a 27-year Muni operator, said “I’ve been with Muni most of my adult life,” and back then Muni “used to be a family.”

Now, he doesn’t feel like the agency has his back.

TWU Local 250-A is expected to enter negotiations with The City for new Muni operator wages in 2019.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story has been revised to clarify that the $36,000 figure reflects take-home pay after taxes for first year drivers. Total salary for first-year drivers is $47,000.

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