There’s a simple explanation for why buses and trains in San Francisco are often late or never show up.
There’s not enough people to drive them.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway has had a chronic shortage of qualified transit operators for several years, which contributes to late or missed runs as well as mounting overtime spending, according to city documents and interviews.
There are about 1,500 transit operators at Muni, which carries about 700,000 passengers a day on the agency’s buses, light-rail vehicles and cable cars.
There should be more.
As of Wednesday there were 266 unfilled operator positions, agency spokesman Paul Rose said, an “ongoing issue” that the SFMTA is trying to correct with a “training surge.”
Muni plans to add training staff and send operators through the training process more quickly, Rose said.
Last week, Muni graduated 25 new operators to full employee status. However, the hundreds of other open jobs have no takers for several reasons: pay, commuting and an ever-tougher working environment, according to interviews with drivers and union officials.
Systemwide, Muni missed between 55 and 73 “runs” every day over a sample three-day period in mid-May, according to Muni records. About 10 times that number of runs were missed during the first two days of last week’s three-day Muni sickout.
The City Charter prevents transit workers from striking. The unauthorized sickout, which was roundly condemned by city officials, is believed to be a “protest” over operators’ continuing labor woes.
Muni drivers make more than their counterparts in Oakland and San Mateo County, but less than bus drivers in San Jose.
In any event, the starting wage of $18.60 is low by Bay Area standards — San Francisco’s minimum wage could be $15 by 2018 — and the $29.53 maximum hourly salary does not go far in The City.
Transit workers take home an average of $11,000 in overtime, according to the city controller, which means the top gross pay for a bus driver in San Francisco is about $70,000 a year.
Thanks to skyrocketing real estate prices, many bus drivers must come from communities far from The City, Transport Workers Union 250A president Eric Williams said. Hard numbers weren’t available at press time, but Williams estimated “85 percent” of Muni drivers do not live in San Francisco.
Muni last accepted applications for new drivers over a two-day period in March. Applicants last week took a written test; those who passed begin training later this year.
It’s not clear how many new operators Muni rolls out every year. About 30 to 50 operators retire every year, Williams said.
At the end of May, Muni operators soundly rejected an offer from the SFMTA that would have seen hourly wages rise to over $32 an hour, which would make them the second-highest-paid transit operators in the country.
That offer was coupled with increased employee contributions to pensions, which would have led to a cut in take-home pay, union officials say.
Until 2010, transit operators had their pay set by a “salary survey” that guaranteed them the second-highest pay in the country until voters approved Proposition G in 2010.
Prop. G also allowed Muni to start hiring part-time bus operators to fill out runs — which is another problem, according to the operators themselves.
Part-time operators are guaranteed 3.5-hour shifts. At $18.60 an hour, a new Muni hire can look forward to “$60 a day,” after taxes and benefits, Williams said.
The deadline for a new Muni contract is Sunday. The two sides met with an independent mediator Wednesday and will do so again today, Rose said. If no agreement is reached by June 15, last year’s expired contract will remain in effect.
How drivers fare
Muni’s wages are tops in the northern Bay Area for bus drivers:
- Starting pay: $17.99 an hour
- Top pay: $25.68 an hour
- Starting pay: $18.60 an hour
- Top pay: $29.52 an hour
- Starting pay: $18 an hour
- Top pay: $29.05 an hour
Valley Transportation Authority (San Jose)
- Starting pay: $18.65 an hour (bus), $21.76 (light rail)
- Maximum pay: $31.09 an hour
Sources: SFMTA, AC Transit, SamTrans, VTA