San Francisco could face “severe and rather unpredictable” cuts to transit service as of Nov. 1 when The City’s vaccine mandate deadline hits.
As of Sept. 30, over 300 transit operators are either unvaccinated or have not reported vaccination status, accounting for about 15% of all Muni drivers.
According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), it has not been able to restore service to pre-pandemic levels because it simply doesn’t have enough operators. Though it’s accelerated its pace of hiring and recently graduated another class of operators, it’s limited by a months-long complex training process.
The 313 operators that currently stand to be terminated under the terms of The City’s vaccine mandate equal the number of vehicle drivers SFMTA expects to train and hire between June 2021 and December 2022.
Agency-wide, 640 employees are unvaccinated, representing roughly 11% of the total workforce. This is the highest number of employees at any city agency, and fewer than 50 of them have applied for a medical or religious exemption.
SFMTA confirmed Tuesday these individuals will be terminated unless they get their COVID-19 shots by The City’s deadline. The result could be deep Muni cuts and an even longer wait time until the agency can restore full service.
Together, this stands to jeopardize the ability of many transit-dependent riders to reach essential destinations such as schools and workplaces, as well as hinder The City’s wider economic recovery.
Already, Muni is unable to provide full service compared to before the pandemic. As of now, SFMTA plans to reach just 85% of pre-COVID-19 levels by February 2022, almost two years after the shelter-in-place order forced the suspension of all but a bare-bones service network.
Director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Board of Directors on Tuesday that this latest major setback would delay the agency’s ability to restore full service levels for at least another 18 months. Already, there’s no set date for this return, and frustration among the public has grown steadily about the lack of clarity.
He also told the board SFMTA is working on contingency plans for how widespread layoffs among operators would impact Muni service come November. These vary greatly based on the number of people who opt for vaccination by the deadline, but all require significant cuts to service akin to levels in May 2021 before the subway was brought back online.
“All options are about drastically reducing service, and the question is how,” Tumlin said. He added that the weeks in the immediate aftermath would be “rather chaotic” in terms of service.
It’s not just Muni service that would be affected.
Nearly 19% of all parking control officers are currently unvaccinated. Without them, SFMTA’s ability to enforce residential permits, meters and other parking regulations would be severely compromised. That has safety and accessibility consequences, but it could also compromise an important stream of revenue for the financially troubled agency.
Additionally, four schools could lose their crossing guards entirely. Another eight would be without the necessary number to ensure safety, Tumlin said.
SFMTA employees were among the groups eligible for priority access to COVID-19 shots along with individuals who worked in food and agriculture, education and emergency services.
As such, the agency has been promoting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines to staff members since the end of 2020 through various methods including educational materials, on-site pop-up vaccination sites, one-on-one outreach and team-wide meetings with public health experts.
SFMTA says it will continue these efforts to get all of its workforce inoculated. Given the required wait time between the two doses of Pfizer and Moderna as well as the lag time after the final shot, the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is quickly becoming the most viable option to bringing the agency’s workforce into compliance by the deadline.
“We absolutely do not want any of our employees to lose their jobs or their incomes and we are going to continue to support our workforce any way we can,” Tumlin said.