New York Subway at Risk of Delays With State Vaccination Mandate
(Bloomberg) -- New York City subway riders may face additional delays as transit workers undergo vaccination and testing mandates, a potential hurdle for a system already struggling to fill hundreds of vacant train operator and conductor positions.
State employees must be vaccinated by Labor Day or undertake weekly coronavirus testing, a mandate that former Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed before he was forced to resign this month amid allegations of sexual harassment. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that oversees New York City’s subways, buses and commuter rail lines, plans to offer on-site testing for its employees.
That could mean longer wait times for subway riders, union officials say. The agency will need to test more than half of its subway and bus employees since only 48% have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the agency. The MTA is already down nearly 700 subway-service delivery workers, including train operators and conductors, since March 2020, according to MTA data.
“The notion that they’re going to be able to pull off this testing, it’s a fantasy,” said John Samuelsen, an MTA board member and international president of the Transport Workers Union. “The mandate for weekly testing of TWU members at the MTA is a logistical nightmare for the employer. It’s very unclear whether or not they have the logistical capacity to test every unvaccinated MTA worker on a weekly basis.”
Many states, cities, schools and businesses across the U.S. are imposing vaccination and testing directives on employees as the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. At the same time, local governments and public transportation systems throughout the U.S. are facing worker shortages and school districts are struggling to find bus drivers.
To better incorporate Covid testing into the work day and the additional time it will require, the agency is offering extended work days for train conductors and operators who want to take on extra hours and implementing a vacation buy-back program that could lead to fewer workers on holiday, said Janno Lieber, the MTA’s acting chief executive officer and chairman.
“We have a strategy that is meant to address what is in fact a national and a regional problem, in a very strategic way,” Lieber said.
The MTA has a history of adjusting work schedules to adapt to different situations, said Andrew Albert, an MTA board member. Requiring weekly testing for unvaccinated employees can also help reduce the spread of the virus at work, Albert said.
“I’m sure they can work this out,” Albert said about the weekly testing. “They have to keep each other and the public safe.”
The MTA needs to restore ridership to pre-pandemic levels and boost fare box collections. The subway still carries less than half the weekday passengers it did in 2019 and faces a combined operating deficit of $3.5 billion in 2024 and 2025 as federal aid runs out.
Delays make it difficult to lure people back to the subways. Service declined in June because of crew shortages. The agency delivered 91.4% of its scheduled weekday subway service, below the 12-month average of 95%, according to MTA data.
More than 70% of all MTA employees have received at least one vaccination shot and the agency continues to encourage its workers to become inoculated. More staff on the MTA’s commuter lines have received jabs: About 61% of Metro-North Railroad workers have received at least one dose, and around 52% of Long Island Rail Road staff have. The coronavirus has killed 171 MTA workers.
The agency is ramping up its hiring of subway crews, adding training classes and expanding some class sizes. The MTA this year lifted a hiring freeze imposed during the pandemic as ridership plummeted and revenue collections dwindled.
The MTA in June had 7,591 employees for subway-service delivery, including operators and conductors, a drop from 8,280 such workers in March 2020, MTA data show. The decline is due to the hiring freeze the agency needed to implement to save costs and employees retiring or leaving during the pandemic.
The MTA’s total workforce was 66,562 in June, a drop from 70,997 in March 2020.
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