A woman exits the 28-19th Avenue Muni bus on 19th Avenue and Lawton Street on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA workers struggle to meet basic needs

Some of Muni’s newest drivers are struggling to make ends meet, under a contract which cuts their pay to about half what new drivers previously made.

These drivers are increasingly leaning on other means to live — including second jobs driving for Uber, or other transit companies — and moving farther away from San Francisco, which operators say may impact the safety of Muni riders.

In interviews with more than 10 bus and train operators, a former union head, and information gleaned from union meetings, the San Francisco Examiner has learned San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency drivers are struggling, and unrest within their union is growing.

Most spoke anonymously due to fear of retribution. Many described an inability to pay for basic living expenses as new Muni operators.

One full-time Muni operator said he makes about $2,100 a month, after taxes.

Despite also combining his income with his wife’s, he said, he still struggles to support his daughter. Like many parents, he makes tradeoffs.

“I get up and go to work every day. It’s not like I don’t have a job,” he said. “My daughter’s birthday came up. I can’t even get her a happy birthday cake. She’s looking at me like ‘Daddy, it’s my birthday, are we doing anything?’”

He was at a loss for words for his daughter.

“How do I explain to her? She’s 5 years old,” he said. “She wants cake and ice cream for her birthday.”

He makes less than most Muni operators, due to a quirk in a contract between SFMTA and its union, the Transit Workers Union Local 250-A. Muni operators at one time made their full salary after 19 months on the job.

Under the 2014 contract, which is still in effect, Muni operators hired after July 1, 2014, start at 63 percent of their full pay, which increases in steps over five years. That’s five years until they earn about $32 an hour.

Irwin Lum, a former TWU Local 250-A president,  said that’s about about $53,000 a year. The Examiner has previously reported that with overtime that can top $70,000 annually.

TWU Local 250-A President Eric Williams, who did not answer calls for an interview, has previously publicly said the majority of Muni operators — as many as 85 percent — do not live in San Francisco.

Estimates of median rent in San Francisco vary, but in August Priceonomics pegged two-bedroom apartments at $4,400 a month.

“With the most recent contract, the new wages place our operators in the top five earners for operators throughout the country,” said Robert Lyles, a spokesman for the SFMTA.

He also added operators make “generous benefits,” including: comprehensive citywide health care coverage for themselves and their families, which starts with a 93 percent employer contribution.

The contentious contract was negotiated in the wake of the notorious “sick out,” when hundreds of drivers didn’t show up to work in unison.

According to the SFMTA, 818 Muni operators were hired after July 2014. That’s 818 operators who will make a fraction of their full salary for five years.

Operators starting out under the five-year rule start at $19.81 an hour.

One Muni operator, who is also a student, told the Examiner he calculates the pay to be much less than that because of Muni’s split shifts.

Peak rider hours are far apart, so SFMTA often requires operators to take long, unpaid breaks so operators can drive when rider demand is greatest — which is also the subject of current litigation.

“We’re on the board for 10 hours, but we’re being paid for eight hours,” the operator said. “You do the math, it comes to 12-14 dollars an hour.”

That operator said leaner years during school means he’ll accrue more debt.

Lum said this means “they’re barely making minimum wage.”

Some drivers are picking up second jobs, operators told the Examiner. Outside a 250-A union meeting in December, one new driver told us he works three jobs.

“I could give up one of those jobs if I were at full pay [at Muni],” he said. A San Francisco native, he now lives in the outer Bay Area to afford housing for his family.

Another operator has three children, and told the Examiner a similar story of working two jobs. “I love the bus, I love driving it. I was born and raised here, it’s my city,” he said. But he isn’t sure how long he can drive while exhausted from overwork.

One operator, who trains new drivers on the light rail, said he’s seen “a lot of people quit,” and he’s seen drivers moonlight as Uber drivers.

Another operator said one of his coworkers drove a bus for Bauer’s Intelligent Systems, a private bus company.

Muni operators must report second jobs to the SFMTA, according to the agency’s policies, and those hours count against their Muni driving hours. The exact number of drivers with second jobs is difficult to pin down, as SFMTA won’t release that information, citing legal employee protections.

In an email, Lyles said operator safety is “not a question of the number of jobs, it is a question of consecutive hours without rest.”

In fiscal year 2012, Muni vehicles had five collisions for every 100,000 miles driven, according to SFMTA. That number increased each year, and in 2015 Muni vehicles experienced 6.5 collisions per 100,000 miles.

Lyles attributed the rise in collisions to increased service, which means more Muni buses on the roads and a booming economy, meaning more traffic.

But Lum said working a second job on top of driving for Muni means “the possibility of being exhausted and accident-prone is that much greater.”

SFMTA annually honors its safest drivers. This year the agency honored 280 drivers who safely navigated city streets for 15 years without an incident, Lyles said.

One of Muni’s safest drivers of 2013, Anthony Parker, told the Examiner that he’s driven safely for 25 years.

As for his new coworkers who make near minimum wage, he said “I do know people that are doing other jobs. It’s obvious, if you’re only making $18 an hour, you can’t live in this region.”

“If you have kids, they better be able to balance a basketball,” he said, because without other means of making money, newer Muni drivers — especially those with families — won’t make ends meet.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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