NYC Commuting Delays Pile Up With 20% of Subway Drivers Out Sick
(Bloomberg) -- New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants workers back in offices to boost the city’s economy and lower an unemployment rate that’s twice the national average. But first, employees need reliable transportation to get there.
New Yorkers who rely on the subway and buses to commute say they’re having a harder time getting to their jobs amid delays caused by transit-staff shortages as the omicron variant drives a surge in infections. And for a city where more than 55% of workers depend on public transportation, riders say every minute counts.
“I usually plan about 30 minutes more than I used to,” William Watkins, 62, who works in IT, said Wednesday morning at the 8th Street-NYU subway station. The “delays seem to be more frequent than they used to be” and the trains are more crowded, he said.
One big reason is staff shortages: About 1,300 subway operators and conductors have been out daily this week, or roughly 21%, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the nation’s largest mass-transit system. City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said Wednesday that citywide Covid cases and hospitalizations are still increasing.
In the last few months, the subway system had managed to claw its way back from the depths of the pandemic, when ridership fell by as much as 90%. The MTA desperately needs that fare revenue. It warned in December that it would have to borrow $1.4 billion when it exhausts its federal pandemic aid in 2025. Weekday ridership on New York’s subways had rebounded to about 57% of pre-pandemic levels as of last month, roughly around the highest levels since the outbreak began.
And then the omicron wave took off and the holiday period began, thinning the ranks of commuters. Subway ridership dropped to its lowest point since April in the final week of 2021, to 10.1 million from 16.5 million three weeks earlier. Meanwhile, staffers testing positive for Covid began climbing, said Craig Cipriano, interim president of New York City Transit. Employee shortages prompted the system to suspend three of the subway’s 22 lines and plead with riders for patience as delays ensued.
“We are experiencing the same phenomena that all industries, specifically, as you see, the airline industry, are experiencing,” Cipriano said in an interview.
The number of staff -- the system has around 6,000 train operators and conductors and 12,000 bus operators -- hasn’t reached the level seen in March 2020, he said. Still, the MTA has suspended the B, W and Z lines -- which connect Manhattan with the outer boroughs -- and it anticipates the interruptions to last at least through the week.
Almost 74% of subway and bus workers have gotten at least one vaccine dose, compared with the 93% of adults citywide. The MTA, a state-run agency, doesn’t have to follow the city’s vaccination mandate for its employees. Unvaccinated transit employees do face weekly testing. Governor Kathy Hochul said last month she feared imposing a mandate on transit workers would cause even more shortages and imperil the transit system further. Fully vaccinated or asymptomatic MTA employees who test positive for Covid-19 can return to work after a five-day quarantine.
Cipriano said the subway network gives most riders multiple options to reach their destinations, and that the transit system has contingency plans to monitor the number of crews available and to shift service in response.
Still, an unreliable subway system is a symptom of an unhealthy city, said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group.
“The subway is the lifeblood of the city, and so the MTA’s problems are the whole city’s problems, and right now riders are feeling it,” he said.
Pearlstein said the MTA was already struggling to maintain a full roster because the system had lost employees over the course of the pandemic. In the early days of the outbreak, the MTA could run skeleton service because there were fewer riders, but that’s become a less manageable option.
Beyond delays, riders are also concerned about crime on the transit system. Mayor Adams this week said he wanted to get more police and mental health professionals on trains.
There is a “perception that our subway system is not safe, we need to remove that perception,” he said during an interview with Bloomberg Television. When asked if he had the funds to keep the trains running, he said “we never have enough.”
Across the Hudson River, New Jersey Transit is tackling the same challenge. Currently roughly 700 of its nearly 12,000 employees have tested positive for Covid-19, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who didn’t want to be identified discussing personnel issues. Still, NJT is operating around 97% of full weekday scheduled rail service, with buses running at 94%.
For their part, some riders say they understand that the omicron-fueled wave impacts all industries. U.S. airlines had to scrub hundreds of flights over the New Year’s weekend.
“I don’t think it says much about the city, I just think it says that the virus is out there and it is affecting people,” Brian O’Donnell, 51, who works in philanthropy, said at the 8th Street-NYU stop Wednesday. “Unfortunately, there is a domino effect.”
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