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SFMTA seeks creative solutions to solve operator shortage

The Muni operator shortage is an ongoing struggle but transit officials are hoping big ideas and aggressive recruiting will resolve staffing issues.

Last week, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors held an annual workshop at its Presidio Division to discuss the current state of the transit agency and future goals.

One of the most pressing topics discussed is a lack of bus operators required to maintain SFMTA’s regular scheduled service, an issue that has plagued the agency since last year.

Recruiting potential Muni bus operators has become increasingly difficult, according to SFMTA’s Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay A Muni bus drives through the intersection of Fulton Street and 8th Avenue in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, June 20, 2018.

In years past, the transit agency would post the open position on the The City’s human resources website and receive thousands of applications, but that is not the case anymore as fewer people are applying and even fewer are accepting the job when offered.

Reiskin attributes some of the recruiting challenge to The City’s low unemployment rate and the hourly wage being offered by SFMTA:

“A lot of folks coming into the job market are not swayed or paying attention to benefits. … They’re not thinking about pension. They’re not thinking about healthcare. They’re looking at the hourly rate.”

Wages will certainly be a topic of discussion as the SFMTA and the union that represents more than 2,500 operators soon begins contract negotiations.

Directly related to wages is the high cost of living in San Francisco.

Malcolm Heinicke, SFMTA board chair, suggested Reiskin approach City Hall officials to discuss the possibility of providing housing for Muni operators as a means of retention.

A Budget and Legislative Analyst report states that about 45 percent of operators do not live in The City and that long commutes could be a factor in why less people are applying for operator positions.

Ching Wong/SFBay The SFMTA opens its Islais Creek Hybrid Motor Coach Facility that can maintain both 40-foot and 60-foot hybrid buses in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, June 15, 2018.

It would not be far-fetched for The City to provide affordable housing for city employees, as is seen in a similar initiative aimed at retaining teachers with the development of subsidized housing units.

Heinicke said:

“These are people who serve The City differently, but also serve The City the same way as police officers and teachers do.”

Reiskin said the union has already introduced the housing idea and that he is looking further into it despite some federal restraints.

The transit agency is also looking stem the operator shortage by reaching out to drivers laid off by Chariot, a private bus company undergoing massive cuts. Last month, the transit agency held an open house for former Chariot drivers to apply for jobs as operators. Reiskin said 111 Chariot drivers applied.

Director Art Torres suggested the transit agency also reach out to taxi drivers.

Heinicke agreed and said that taxi drivers are part of the Muni family too:

“If we’re going to be reaching out to Chariot drivers, I think we at least owe the courtesy to the taxi drivers.”

Taxi drivers have been hurting for years due to the increasing use of rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft.

While most taxi drivers may not have a Class B license, required for Muni operators, Heinicke suggested SFMTA create a formal pamphlet explaining requirements and application procedures for taxi professionals looking to make the transition.

Transit officials have already launched plans for a three-week course focusing on how to obtain a Class B license for those interested in becoming operators.

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