SFMTA officials on Tuesday said the agency hopes to grow the number of Muni drivers over the next three months. (Aleah Fajardo/Special To S.F. Examiner)

Unprecedented number of Muni operators call in sick Monday

Muni riders bewildered at a lack of bus service Monday need wonder no more: Some buses didn’t hit the pavement because an unusually high number of Muni operators were out sick that day.

The operator shortage was highlighted in emails within the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which were provided in a Freedom of Information Act request made by the San Francisco Examiner.

For the duration of Monday, Muni cancelled its Castro Shuttle, some Cole Shuttle runs and consolidated other service.

“Manpower levels very thin, all available resources exhausted,” warned transit specialist James Flores in an email to SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin and a bevy of other management.

A flurry of emails followed about how to shore up service.

Jeffrey Flynn, chief transit officer at the SFMTA, said Tuesday the amount of operators out of work sick was unprecedented — 10 percent of all operators were out Monday, a total of 74 operators.

“There was an unexpected spike in the sick calls,” Flynn told the Examiner, “and you can imagine it’s hard to plan for a sudden spike in unavailability like that.”

But, Flynn added, Muni operations were more vulnerable to the high number of sick days due to a continued driver shortage at the SFMTA, though that shortage may be solved by next spring.

In an email to Flynn, Reiskin asked a question many riders may also share:

“Any idea why the numbers are so high?” Reiskin wrote of Muni operators taking sick days. “Looks like much higher than this time last year.”

The answer, according to Flynn, requires a bit of internal history at the transit agency.

Part of the shortage was due to the fact that the SFMTA had to pause training new drivers so it could retrain old drivers. These operators switched “jobs” within the SFMTA in April — from rail to rubber tire, for instance — and required new training. That shift of personnel is called “general signups,” and it contractually allows operators to choose new bus or rail divisions to work in.

But for the transit agency, that caused headaches, which rippled forward to Tuesday.

The SFMTA has “four levers” to deal with a lack of drivers, Flynn said: bringing down short-time sick leave, bringing down long-time sick leave, training new operators and increasing use of overtime.

While the SFMTA waited for trainers to open up for new drivers, it boosted overtime. Five years ago, when Flynn said he first arrived, Muni relied heavily on overtime and used about 60 to 70 overtime shifts per day.

“That came down significantly after the hiring push we did in the past few years,” Flynn said, noting the average is down to less than 10 shifts a day.

But now the operator shortage has spiked back up to 40 to 50 overtime shifts a day, he said. That may be solved after a few new classes of Muni recruits graduate.

“The January class is a big one,” Flynn said

About 30 graduates are expected in January, 20 in February, and another 30 new operators in March.

As long as there isn’t another sweep of operator sick days, according to Flynn, Muni service should not be impacted.

Until then, Muni management may be crossing its fingers and hoping drivers eat plenty of chicken soup.

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