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Shortage of transit workers hurts California’s economy

In summary

So many employees are sick with COVID or afraid to go to work that it is disrupting public transportation service. That is having an impact on the workforce and the economy.

Read this article in English.

Bus driver Brandi Donaldson describes the early days of the pandemic as living under a dark cloud.

Week after week, the 38-year-old AC Transit employee wondered when, not if, she would get infected with COVID-19 and bring it home to her husband, four children and elderly parents. “It wasn’t until April 2021 that the black cloud was finally lifted,” he said, “and that’s when I was able to get my second COVID vaccine.”

But now, with the omicron surge, that dark cloud is back.

Transit agencies across the state are experiencing a shortage of workers, and it’s shutting down service in Sacramento, the Bay Area and Southern California because too many workers are sick, quarantined or scared to go to work.

Every day, Donaldson says, at least one or two of his co-workers test positive. And that means fewer drivers on the road and more frustration among passengers.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Well, you signed up for this job,’ and yes, I did. I didn’t sign up to be a masked cop. I didn’t sign up to be a passenger limit cop. I signed up to pick up passengers and take them where they need to go,” said Donaldson, who lives in the Bay Area city of Rodeo.

Some counties are also in the process of issuing vaccination mandates for employees, including transit workers. That could lead to some layoffs for those who don’t comply, further reducing labor and service to passengers.

“Before the pandemic, there weren’t enough bus drivers to run the routes we have unless most of us worked a lot of overtime,” said Sultana Adams, 47, who also works for AC Transit. “We were already short. Imagine what it is like now.”

The labor shortage is part of a national trend and is not limited to transit workers.

But because transit systems are arteries that get employees to work, especially low-income workers, the impact is rippling through California’s economy.

Giovanni Circella, director of the mobility of the future program at the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies, said that while remote work has allowed California’s economy to recover, many jobs, usually with lower wages, still require that people show up for work. Bus riders in particular, he said, “don’t have many other options.”

A clogged transportation system also means more foot traffic for small businesses, he said.

Ridership was already declining before the pandemic: From 2012 to 2016, the number of public transit trips statewide dropped by 62 million a year. Still, while only about 5% of workers statewide took public transportation before the pandemic, in larger metropolitan areas like San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, nearly 19% of workers, or 462,000, used buses. and trains, according to census data.

Keeping public transport alive

Transit operations across California never came to a complete standstill during the pandemic: While systems suspended some routes and capped ridership, they provided an essential service that got employees to hospitals and grocery stores and helped others get to work. commute who couldn’t afford a car, or to call a ride-sharing service. Some offered free rides.

But keeping that lifeline up and running hasn’t been easy for transit workers.

“I didn’t sign up to be a masked cop. I didn’t sign up to be a passenger limit cop. I signed up to pick up passengers and take them where they need to go.”

Conductora de AC Transit, Brandi Donaldson

Stephanie St. Onge, a driver for the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in Santa Clara County, said arriving operators feel overworked trying to maintain service. After a VTA employee killed nine co-workers on the San Jose railroad last May, the light rail system was shut down for two weeks, which meant increased demand for bus service.

“When you are overloaded with work, what happens?” San Onge asked. “Your immune system goes down. It’s starting to wear off.”

Exhaustion is not the only problem.

“I got spat on in April 2020, then four more times due to ridership limits and not being able to pick people up,” recalls Donaldson of AC Transit, the third-largest bus system in the state with about 175,000 riders a day before. the pandemic. “I got hit on the door of the bus on two different occasions. A guy tried to hit me with an umbrella. They put up plexiglass to put a barrier between us and the passengers, and I had someone drill through it, all because of having to enforce the mask policy and passenger limit.”

While mask rules differ from city to city and have changed within cities during the pandemic, buses and other public transportation have been under federal rules requiring face coverings since January 2021. No all passengers know that, or want to follow the regulations, which have been extended until at least March 18.
Drivers across the state said some agencies were slow to provide protective gear, or not enough. And while public transportation workers were deemed essential in an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, not all counties prioritized drivers to get vaccinated at the same time as grocery store workers, for example, at the vaccine rollout last year.

An AC Transit bus drives through downtown Oakland on Jan. 20, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento/CalMatters

The impact has not been limited to drivers. Mechanics say there aren’t enough staff to disinfect buses at the end of their routes, and as the CDC has eased guidelines, it has become less of a priority.

Sacramento Regional Transit District officials said the increase in omicron has caused more workers to be sick than at any other time during the pandemic. Some employees have also had to deal with school closures, child care and other challenges affecting the workforce nationwide.

There are usually employees who can fill in for drivers who are out, but the recent surge has meant more trip cancellations and delays, said Jessica Gonzalez, public information officer for the agency, which operates the buses and the bus system. light rail in Sacramento.

It restored full service in September 2020 and was also one of the few agencies to expand, adding an Uber-like service.

The agency has launched a major effort to recruit new workers. To maintain the existing workforce, he provided a $750 bonus, funded through a grant from the American Association of Public Transportation. Still, officials acknowledged the additional tasks for drivers, such as enforcing mask mandates, though supervisors or police officers are sometimes asked to intervene.

“We can’t deny it, and it’s been tough, especially for our frontline workers,” said Shelly Valenton, vice president of integrated services and strategic initiatives at SacRT. “We’re doing our best, you know, within the resources that we have available.”

Regional Transit offered paid sick time for workers to get vaccinated and for any side effects before the state required supplemental paid sick leave. Officials said they are waiting to see what happens with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget that has a proposal to reinstate the license. But there are no specific plans for payment for danger in SacRT.

At AC Transit, that’s something the workers’ union has been pushing for and formally demanded last fall.

“We have had over 180 workers infected with COVID and several members who have passed away,” Robert Coleman, president of ATU 192, said in a Dec. 4 statement. “We’re just asking for the back hazard pay we deserve for staying the course.”

On Wednesday, the AC Transit board is set to vote on $5 million in “thank you pay” for employees.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that explains public policy and political issues in California.

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