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Muni service drags because of poor driver pay, says analyst

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“We’re not even paying them enough to qualify for affordable housing”

A Muni bus driving past hillside SF houses. Photo by Robert Szymansk

San Francisco’s proverbially spotty public transit service got so unpredictable this summer that City Hall is still looking for answers.

On Wednesday, the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, at the behest of Supervisor Vallie Brown, called a hearing to explain “why there is a shortage of trained operators for San Francisco’s municipal transit fleet, despite knowing that new vehicles have been purchased and are scheduled to come into service to alleviate ongoing and increased congestion.”

Among the answers: Muni can’t retain drivers because SFMTA isn’t paying them enough.

Called to present to the committee, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency [SFMTA] head Ed Reiskin blamed Muni’s woes on “a perfect storm” of variables, including new training, new technology, and critical infrastructure work all hitting the agency at the same time.

But Fred Russo, reporting on behalf of the Office of the Budget and Legislative Analyst, emphasized a longtime driver shortage that’s only gotten worse because the city doesn’t pay drivers enough money to make the job worthwhile.

“Compensation is always a factor,” he said. “The agency isn’t as attractive a place to work as it has been in the past.”

However, Russo also emphasized that no one factor is to blame for the declining Muni workforce and that solving the problem demands an eclectic approach of multiple solutions.

Photo by ZikG

Annual salary for new drivers starts at $47,000, notes Russo. According the Mayor’s Office of Housing, the median income in 2018 for a single person in San Francisco is $82,900.

In truth, the city does have enough drivers to meet its estimated needs—Russo reports 2,557 operators are available to cover 2,305 necessary positions—but absenteeism is fairly high, leading to frequent deficits. Furthermore, the number of applicants for jobs is decreasing—from 2,472 in 2011 to just 1,100 in 2018, with the figure dipping as low as 829 in 2016.

“At least 45 percent of the operators live outside of San Francisco,” said Russo, adding that morale in the workforce seems to be low and “some operators don't receive the respect they feel they deserve.”

Again, Russo persisted that wages alone are neither the cause of nor the solution to the problem. He explains that “SFMTA should consider changes in operator’s wages using adjusted cost of living” if they want to solve the shortage.

Supervisor Brown chimed in, exclaiming, “We’re not even paying them enough to qualify for affordable housing.”

Muni Union President Roger Marenco told the committee that “wage progression” was a problem as well.

“It used to be 18 months to max out in pay, it’s now 48 months,” said Marenco. “Going from level one in pay to level two now takes 12 months. It used to take two.”

He added that “operators do not feel safe” on the job and often fear being the victim of crimes on their routes, which contributes to poor morale and increased turnover.

During public comment, multiple Muni drivers testified about being assaulted on the job and complained that the San Francisco Police Department does not respond swiftly enough to calls.

The San Francisco Examiner notes that the union plans to negotiate over compensation in 2019, which could get contentious if the product of Wednesday’s hearing does, in fact, reflect prevailing attitudes in the workforce.