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MBTA News Briefs: Finally Some Better News on Bus Driver Hiring

Bar chart illustrating monthly bus driver active headcounts and vacancies since January. The number of vacancies increased slightly in the months Jan. to March but decreased slightly in May.

* Note: the MBTA changed its reporting methods in May to distinguish “active headcount” (hired bus drivers who are working) from “inactive headcount” (hired drivers who are out on leave). In previous reports, the T had only reported its “active headcount” and included inactive positions among its vacancies.

The MBTA's three board committees met on Thursday morning with three newly-appointed members to discuss its new 5-year capital plan, hiring updates, and meet the MassDOT's newly-hired Chief Safety Officer.

Incentives for new bus drivers get traction

For the past several months, the board's Workforce Committee has been getting regular updates on hiring efforts, with particular focus on the agency's operations control center – the dispatching center for subway trains where understaffing was identified as a key issue in last year's federal safety management inspection – and bus operators.

We've reported previously that the T's roster of bus operators has been steadily declining over the past year, which has forced the agency to reduce bus service and jeopardizes its longer-term ambitions to expand bus service with more frequent-running bus routes.

This month's report finally offered some good news on that front: for the first time this year, the T posted a slight increase in its roster of active bus drivers (see chart above).

The agency also reported a big decrease in vacancies, but that was mostly due to a change in the way it reported these numbers; it's now counting inactive drivers – people who are out on family or medical leave – in what it's calling its "actual" headcount, even though those drivers aren't available to drive buses.

In a follow-up email, StreetsblogMASS was able to confirm that there are are currently 1,482 active bus drivers at the T, a net increase of 24 since last month.

Tom Waye, the T's Chief Human Resources Officer, reported that there are also 58 new drivers currently in the T's training programs, and credited new hiring incentives for helping with recruitment efforts.

"We've increased the bus operator training (pay) rate. As mentioned before, we offered a sign-on bonus, originally of $4,500, and effective April 15, we moved that to $7,500, (and) a referral bonus of $2,000 to incentivize staff recommendations," said Waye.

The T has also reduced the trial period when new drivers are restricted to working part-time schedules from 6 months to 3 months.

Can transit-dependent workers get jobs with the T?

Board members also had lots of feedback this month about how the T could step up its recruitment efforts.

One particular discussion focused on a counterintuitive job requirement: in spite of the fact that it serves a metropolitan region that's home to over 167,000 car-free workers (a little over 7 percent of the region's workforce), most of the T's jobs require applicants to have a driver's license.

"We're talking about barriers for a good subset of folks who are employable," said board member Chanda Smart.

"We've had this conversation before, because we've had sheet metal workers who've applied that may not have a license that aren't going to drive... it's the reason they take the T. But we've had this discussion going back and forth a long time, but now it's come to a head because we need to hire people," said Bob Butler.

In a follow-up, an MBTA spokesperson explained that there are a handful of office positions at the T that don't require applicants to have a license.

"In MBTA areas such Operations, Maintenance & Capital, licenses are required as they can be required to drive either passenger vehicles or vehicles that are used to transport tools, materials, equipment, etc.," explained the spokesperson in an email.

T board meets Patrick Lavin, MassDOT's new Chief Safety Officer

The third and final board committee meeting of the day – the Safety, Health & Environment Subcommittee – featured an introduction of Patrick Lavin, Governor Healey's new Chief Safety Officer for MassDOT.

Lavin offered a brief biography – his transit career began at New York City's MTA, then joined Washington D.C. Metro in 2016 to help shepherd that agency through its own federal safety management oversight audit from the Federal Transit Administration.

Lavin also revealed that he had been involved in the 2019 "Safety Review Panel" report to the MBTA's former governing board.

"I supplied the technical support and was the author of the report, I did a lot of the technical writing and a lot of the field assessments," revealed Lavin.

It's not immediately clear how Lavin, as a MassDOT employee, will oversee safety at the T, but he did indicate that he had been following debates in the Legislature about a possible new safety oversight agency with the state's Office of the Inspector General.

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