The starting pay for Muni operators is higher than it was for drivers of the recently-closed Chariot shuttle service. (Courtesy photo)

At least 125 laid off Chariot drivers signed up for Muni training program so far

More than 300 laid off Chariot drivers were offered a hand from The City Wednesday morning, and by and large, those drivers responded in droves.

By the end of Wednesday, 125 laid off Chariot drivers signed up for Mayor London Breed’s new “CityDrive” program, a free, accelerated training program to put San Franciscans behind the wheel of commuter shuttles, tour buses, and yes, Muni buses.

And that’s just after the first day of outreach — The City still has roughly 175 workers it has yet to pitch on its program. The Office of Economic Workforce Development, which runs the program, intends to pitch more Chariot drivers Thursday.

CityDrive is a new iteration of CityBuild, a program championed by Mayor Ed Lee to train San Franciscans to work in the building trades industry. CityDrive was already in the works when the San Francisco Examiner first revealed Chariot would shut its doors late last week.

When the news broke, Breed and other city leaders saw a win-win scenario: CityDrive could launch in time to help train the nearly 300 workers to obtain the necessary Class B licenses to drive for Muni, who themselves have suffered an operator shortage that has led to significant service gaps across its 700,000 daily trips.

“When I heard Chariot would close its doors, I thought about the hundreds of employees who live here, work here, and may continue to struggle to work here,” Breed told reporters, Wednesday.

But, she said, “There is hope.”

CityDrive offers an accelerated training program to put Class B permits in the hands of drivers more quickly than Muni’s traditional training process. Some 15 percent of the 300 laid off Chariot drivers have Class B licenses, according to their union, Teamsters Local 665.

“It’s essentially a boot camp,” said Josh Arce, director of workforce development at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which leads the CityDrive program.

Wednesday morning, roughly 125 Chariot drivers packed into a community room at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Islais Creek Motor Coach Facility, one of the agency’s many Muni bus yards.

One of those drivers was Debra Ambrose, a Los Altos native who moved to San Francisco two years ago to drive for Chariot. She was so grateful for the CityDrive program she tightly hugged a Chariot staffer, Nima Rahimi, and SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin as she left the Islais Creek bus facility.

“Chariot said ‘we’re not going to leave you hanging,’” Ambrose told the Examiner.

She said the layoffs may also end up having a silver lining. At $22.75 an hour, the base salary for Muni operators is higher than for Chariot drivers.

Despite the drivers being a needed shot in the arm for Muni’s operator shortage, the key will be to retain the operators once they are hired. A City Hall hearing called for by Supervisor Vallie Brown revealed that SFMTA’s operator shortage doesn’t only stem from attracting drivers — but in keeping them.

In December The City Controller’s Office found that after a tweak to Muni drivers’ contracts extending the time it takes them to be paid full wages from 18 months, to 48 months, more Muni drivers lived in poverty and decided to quit their jobs before reaching full pay. Those fleeing Muni operators led to service shortages citywide, the Controller’s Office concluded.

Supervisor Vallie Brown, who attended Wednesday’s press conference, reiterated her call to “invest” in Muni operators so San Franciscans get the Muni service they deserve. She has publicly said that during the 2019 Muni contract negotiations operators pay-step should be decreased.

But Wednesday, Mayor Breed would not commit to restoring Muni operators pay to stem the shortage.

“I’m not going to suggest that without seeing the information,” Breed told the Examiner. “But I do think we need to shorten the time period it takes to get people out there” driving, she added.

Coincidentally, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A president Roger Marenco, who represents Muni operators, was coming directly from meeting with Mayor’s Office staff Wednesday when he arrived at the Islais Creek bus yard to meet the Chariot drivers.

When asked if he thought City Hall would grant his drivers raises more quickly, Marenco was coy.

“I’m very hopeful in a couple of months we’re gonna get a great contract,” he said.

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