Bus service on lines across San Francisco was affected this week by a contract dispute with drivers. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni service slowed after drivers refuse to work overtime

Work action due to contract fight affecting bus lines citywide

It’s not a strike — but it’s close.

Muni operators citywide are refusing to drive on their days off in a bid to put pressure on The City at the bargaining table.

That has crippled bus and train routes citywide, according to data obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

The 1-California, 5R-Fulton Rapid, 14-Mission, 14X-Mission Express, 21-Hayes, 24-Divisadero, 27-Bryant, 29-Sunset, 30-Stockton, 35-Eureka, 38-Geary, 41-Union, 43-Masonic, and 45-Union/Stockton Muni routes have all faced operator shortages at various times this week, according to Muni.

Transit wait times across The City have extended past 20 minutes, even 40 minutes, for some buses. From Chinatown to the Mission, from the Sunset District to the Ingleside, from the Bay to the shore, Muni service has suffered.

The worst impacts were felt Monday and Tuesday, although they continued through Thursday, according to The City.

“What is going on with your service today?” complained Twitter user @PeskinsBeard on Monday, to Muni. “I waited an hour for my bus, and then gave up and called a friend to drive me to my aesthetician appointment. Waiting an hour for a bus that’s supposed to come every 10 minutes is unacceptable!”

What’s “going on” is that Muni’s operator union, representing 2,000 members, is in contract negotiations with The City. And according to union officials, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency isn’t offering a high enough raise to cover a cost-of-living increase, and is even proposing cuts to Muni’s workforce.

So the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A is pushing back.

The union declared to its members this week in a Facebook post that operators should refuse to drive on their day off for overtime pay, a practice known as RDO, or Regular Day Off work.

“We will not accept 99 cents (raise) and we will not accept cuts,” wrote Roger Marenco, president of the operators union. “Due to this disrespectful offer of 99 cents, our membership has decided ‘NO RDO,’ meaning we will not sign up for overtime on our days off.”

In a YouTube video to his members, Marenco said the pay-raise offer was a “slap in the face.”

Muni operators are legally barred from striking but are under no legal obligation to work on their days off.

Were the agency’s staff at full levels, Marenco’s plan would have little chance of succeeding.

However, the SFMTA, which runs Muni, has been experiencing a shortage of Muni operators, leading to missed bus and train runs throughout San Francisco. The operator shortage came to a head last summer, when substitute shuttles pulled drivers from their regular routes, resulting in a “meltdown” seen across The City.

With fewer operators hired, SFMTA depends on operators working on their days off just to maintain basic levels of service — an Achilles heel the union is now pounding on.

While previous transit worker actions like the BART strike of 2013 drew ire from the public, SFMTA’s recent history of bleeding Muni operators is pushing some city leaders to begrudgingly, and in some cases enthusiastically, side with the union. Notably, a San Francisco Budget Legislative Analyst report analyzed the Muni operator shortage and concluded the last contract negotiated in 2014, which extended the time it takes operators to reach full pay from 18 months to roughly five years, led to drivers fleeing the agency.

Those operators train at Muni, earn Class-B licenses, then go work for other transit agencies throughout the state, depriving San Francisco of operators. That was revealed in a City Hall hearing held by Supervisor Vallie Brown, who says the Muni operators deserve better raises than The City is offering.

“We’re losing money in the long run, because we’re training them and then, of course, they go get a job closer to home that pays them more money,” Brown said.

She also added that the work stoppage makes sense.

“They underpay you, you drive hours and hours, and they want you to work on your days off?” she said. “Would you? That would be crazy.”

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

A work stoppage of this magnitude has not been seen since the notorious “Muni Sickout” of 2014, when hundreds of drivers simultaneously called out sick to protest their contract negotiations. Rachel Hyden, director of the Transit Riders advocacy group, said it was unfortunate that riders are left with longer wait times — but added that Muni needs to recruit more operators, which may require higher pay.

“Not just anecdotally, but the most recent report showed one way to increase operator retention was to pay them more,” she said. “The City itself said to do that.”

Across San Francisco this week, riders complained of lengthy wait times on social media.

“We’ve also been standing here for twenty-five minutes,” wrote Twitter user @captiancaffeine on Monday, who said NextMuni wasn’t accurately showing when the next 29-Sunset bus would arrive. On Tuesday, Twitter user @A_p_walker wrote, “@sfmta_muni — are there really 20-min headways on the 41? What’s going on? Usually it’s under 10 minutes.”

On Thursday, Twitter user @mewchuruji wrote “@sfmta_muni ok this is just ridiculous now,” showing the waits for a 28-19th Avenue bus reaching a staggering 37 minutes. Also Thursday, Twitter user @jrocks2004 wrote to Muni “Why is there a HUGE service gap on the 22 (outbound)? I need to get to school!” They added, in all caps, “THE BUS I WAS WAITING FOR SKIPPED M STOP I WAS WAITING FOR OVER 30 MINUTES!”

Even San Francisco elected officials were caught out.

San Francisco Board of Education member Rachel Norton tweeted to Muni this week, “Waited 15 mins on Market at Montgomery-only (one) 38R in all that time and couldn’t get on -too full!”

When the San Francisco Examiner first asked SFMTA to explain why bus and train runs were so impacted this week, agency spokesperson Erica Kato wrote “Over the Easter weekend and into this week, a combination of sick calls, operators taking their Regular Days Off (RDO), and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) led to a number of unfilled runs.” However the number of operators calling out sick and using family medical leave had been “trending down” since Wednesday, Kato said.

She did not mention the union dispute over wages.

When the Examiner then asked Kato to verify whether or not these days out were related to the union’s action, and to give subsequent comment, Kato did not answer. Instead, the agency posted a blog post detailing the operators taking days off, seemingly circumventing the Examiner to comment directly to the public.

“You can find additional information on our blog,” Kato wrote.

When asked how long the work stoppage would continue, Marenco declined to comment. In a YouTube video to his members, however, he argued for them to rest on their day off — noting operators are subjected to angry passengers, and long hours away from their families.

“We’re tearing up our bodies, we are mentally fatigued, we are stressed, assaulted,” he said. “How does The City of San Francisco repay us? 99 cents. A slap in the face.” Marenco said. “If not now, then when? If not this, then what?”

The City will find out.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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