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MTA Worker Shortages And Illnesses Take Toll On Subway Service

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This story was originally published on January 18 2021 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

The number of daily subway runs has dipped in recent months because of worker shortages — taking such a toll that sources said that MTA officials looked into the possibility of temporarily reducing service on some lines.

The conductor and train operator ranks have been stretched so thin by illness, retirements and a lack of new hires that nearly 4,200 one-way trips were canceled in December. That represents almost 2% of the total runs, according to internal figures obtained by THE CITY.

“There’s just not enough bodies,” said Eric Loegel, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president. “There’s not enough qualified conductors and operators.”

During the height of the pandemic in the city last spring — when subway ridership plunged by more than 90% — the MTA reduced non-peak service.

Transit officials took the B, W and Z lines out of commission for months as illness and isolation, at one point in the spring, sidelined close to 40% of the nearly 30,000 subway workers at an agency that has suffered more than 130 coronavirus-related worker deaths.

But a recent citywide surge in positive tests for COVID-19 has the agency again facing crew shortages, which can contribute to longer waits on platforms and less room on trains for riders to socially distance.

Internal incident reports reviewed by THE CITY repeatedly cite train trips that were classified as “abandoned” because of the absence of a conductor, the train operator — or both.

“Any time you make the time between trains longer, it’s less service,” Loegel said.

A study of 3,000 transit workers released in October by the NYU School of Global Public Health offered a glimpse of what may be driving some absences. The study found that nearly 90% of those who responded in August feared getting sick at work, and that 60% reported feeling “nervous, anxious, on-edge and cannot stop worrying.”

The staffing shortages among the nearly 6,200 train operators and conductors, sources told THE CITY, had officials considering possibly reducing service on some lines.

Ridership Down, Cancelations Up

An MTA spokesperson said service plans and ridership trends are regularly reviewed, and that the agency “will periodically make adjustments based on the data to ensure safe, reliable service.”

“Our heroic train operators and conductors have remained overwhelmingly effective at delivering service despite a range of challenges during the COVID crisis,” said the spokesperson, Andrei Berman.

The crew shortage has, in some cases, forced the transit agency to press platform controllers into service as train conductors. With MTA figures showing daily subway ridership down about 70% from January 2019, platform controllers assigned to assist in speeding train boarding at once-bustling stations have already seen their duties altered.

A conductor looks out their window moments before their train takes off, June 12, 2020. Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

According to the MTA, an average of 1.7% of the scheduled daily one-way trips were canceled over the last three months of 2020, compared to .3% in the first week of March.

That trickles down to service frequency, Loegel and other subway workers said.

“It’s not like the mass quarantines like we had in spring, and I hope we don’t get to that,” Loegel said. “But there are definitely more people getting sick and getting quarantined.”

THE CITY reported last year that train operators and conductors recorded the highest number of COVID-19 infections among subway workers. Transit workers began receiving the first dose of the vaccine last week.

‘Never Been So Stressed’

The crew shortage has been particularly high among conductors, leading to a bump in one-way trips being canceled and an increase in overtime.

“Almost every day I’m on the radio, I’m hearing them asking for conductors to work their day off,” one subway worker posted last month in an online forum popular with MTA employees. “And lately on the lines I work on, they’ve been [cancelling one-way trips] due to no conductor.”

Riders who continued traveling on the subway during the spring — when ridership dropped by more than 90% — recalled how staffing shortages sometimes resulted in overcrowding on trains.

“For 10 months, I have never been so stressed out in my life,” said Marsha Landar, a Queens home health care worker who rode the 7 and F daily into Manhattan. “If they do decide on reduced service, it is just going to make the matter worse.”

MTA and union officials said a long-running hiring freeze and retirements have further thinned the ranks of subway train crews at a time when the agency is counting on billions in federal funds to avoid massive service and workforce reductions.

“A lot of folks who were maybe on the fence about whether to stay or go, the pandemic pushed them out the door,” Loegel said. “We hope they can start bringing in some new hires soon.”


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