What’s behind the “operator shortage”?
For the past few months, SEPTA riders have been waiting for buses that never arrive. SEPTA officials blame an “operator shortage”; there’s not enough operators to cover the scheduled transit service. Transit agencies have had trouble recruiting operators even before COVID, and now, in the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, all workers have seen how little their employers value their lives. Being a transit operator is a demanding, public facing job with odd hours, which can be dangerous in the United States where decades of public service cuts have left many people angry, hopeless, violent, and out of options.
Actions taken by SEPTA officials during the COVID crisis made the “operator shortage” worse. Transit workers that kept the SEPTA system running through the crisis were denied hazard pay and were instead given a “tribute wall.” SEPTA executives told the media they took a 10% pay cut, which was a public relations stunt and not entirely truthful. SEPTA executives reverted to full pay after 10 weeks, while SEPTA workers received no hazard pay and were under an “overtime freeze” through 2020. SEPTA management then turned around an instituted mandatory overtime in 2021. SEPTA received hundreds of millions in federal aid to keep transit service running and instead the SEPTA board voted to spend some of it on planning a suburban construction project. The SEPTA board then fully committed to maintaining our busted status-quo and adopted a budget that hires no additional operators.
Operators who were willing to work overtime in the midst of a pandemic were turned away. Now, with a heavier workload and mandatory overtime on fewer operators, riders are left waiting for buses that don’t show up. We are in this position because SEPTA management seems to prioritize handing out contract work over running transit service and because transit workers are taken for granted.
Which riders are affected by the “operator shortage”?
During the weeks of September 12 and 19, our analysis of SEPTA's public location tracker data shows that across the SEPTA bus and trolley system, between 13%-15% of trips were missed.
Some routes are more affected than others. The 78 bus, with only four trips a day, has missed 70% of its runs. The 102 and 101 out of 69th St. Terminal are missing 45% and 40% trips respectively. The 14 bus from Oxford Valley and Neshaminy Malls to Frankford Terminal has missed 36% of its trips.
High ridership routes 17, 33, 23, and 47 are all missing 19% or more of their trips.
Between Sept. 7 and 25, there have been days where 50% or more of scheduled runs go unfilled. This appears to happen most often on the 101 and 102. Sundays usually see a spike in unfilled trips.
What can be done?
Our public institutions– public transit systems, schools, libraries– need to be funded not only to meet the current need, but funded heavily to reverse decades of austerity. It is the responsibility of the people who run our public institutions to speak truthfully on the failures of the past and their immediate commitment to fund public goods before our institutions collapse.
If you believe in organizing for a well-funded public transit system that serves the public good, join the TRU.