Muni driver shortage getting worse, solutions include better pay and free college class

Image 1 of 2

There is a well-known Muni driver shortage in San Francisco and according to a new city analysis, that number is worse than previously reported.

The city’s budget and legislative analyst’s latest report shows there is a Muni operating deficit of 411 positions, or 17.8 percent. The shortfall of drivers has been present since September 2016, the report stated but the “gap has increased” since this March.

These numbers are worse than numbers made public this summer. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that former transit Director John Haley had said at the time that Muni needed 159 operators to be fully staffed — a number that jumped to 245 during a troubled retrofit of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.  The problem was most evident over the summer when the Twin Peaks Tunnel closed and two popular lines each missed more than 4,000 hours of service because drivers had to be relocated to other lines.

Muni agrees that it needs more operators, but said so far it has been covering the operators shortage by asking some to work longer shifts.  "In order to fill some of the gaps we might be seeing we would use overtime. So that eight hour shift would go to a 10 hour shift," said Paul Rose of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

"Some people like to earn the overtime," said Brousseau. "But, it's not a long term solution or a good staffing plan for maintaining the system overall."

And the shortage does not appear to be ending soon, the report stated. The applicant pool has been on the decline in recent years. There were more than 4,000 applicants for Muni jobs in 2014, and slightly more than 2,100 this year. 

The reasons for the shortage include low Muni pay, better jobs elsewhere, the high cost of housing in San Francisco and an “unfavorable working environment” at the agency, the report outlined. Union leaders say that new drivers start at $37,000 a year -- too low to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to live in The City. 

"It's been quite a while since we've had a challenge in hiring folks to work part time," San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin said at Tuesday's meeting. "But now, recently, even to find folks who want to work full time has been challenging as our unemployment rate gets down to effectively zero." 

Board Chair Cheryl Brinkman pondered allowed if the agency was doing enough to attract women.

“I do wonder if women are not applying to drive the buses," she asked. "Because they do feel, it's just an overwhelming idea to be able to drive a 40 foot by 60 foot bus, And I wonder if there's some way that we can just widen our hiring pool by making that job appear more approachable to people, in particular, women?” 

The budget and legislative analyst’s report laid out several possible solutions including paying drivers a wage that meets the cost of living in the Bay Area, and a free City College class to help eligible employees pass the driving permit test. It also suggested a wage increase to more accurately reflect the cost of living in the Bay Area.

And it recommended that SFMTA gather feedback from other transit unions throughout the country. The decline in applications for bus and rail drivers appears to be a nationwide trend, director of policy analysis Fred Brousseau wrote in the report.

The Board of Supervisors does not have authority over San Francisco’s transportation systems, so these proposals are considered suggestions.