MBTA photo | File

The nearly 300,000 people who ride the MBTA’s buses every day could be getting some relief from the crowding and unreliable schedules as the T’s major staffing shortages force the cancellation of bus trips daily, seemingly at random.

T officials announced a key deal with its biggest union Thursday that solves an issue transit advocates had repeatedly hammered over the last 18 months as the agency failed to hire replacements for hundreds of bus drivers who’d left since the pandemic.

Until now, bus drivers would need to start their careers at the T on a part-time basis. Combined with the T’s split-shift system for new hires – working part of a shift during the morning rush hour, and part in the evening – advocates said the schedules made the T entirely uncompetitive with blue-collar fields offering similar pay and requiring similar skills, like package or take-out delivery, that had grown rapidly in recent years.

Going forward, the T said, a deal with Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 will see new bus drivers start on a full-time basis, and let current part-time operators and trainees transition to full-time status if they want.

Right now, between 25 and 30 bus trips are dropped every day across its system, the T said, largely driven by driver shortages. The T has also blamed the ongoing reduction in frequencies among its subway trains on a shortage of train operators now that its train dispatcher shortage appears to have been addressed.

In statements released by the T, MBTA General Manager Phil Eng called the deal “a tremendous step in strengthening and revitalizing the MBTA’s workforce by making the role more attractive to prospective candidates,” and Local 598 President Jim Evers called it “a great way to get more workers in the door, and it does reflect a new approach from a new administration that is showing it values frontline workers and the interests of riders.”

Advocates also praised the move.

“Streamlining the process for hiring critically needed bus operators will better position the MBTA to meet the needs of riders and our region,” A Better City President and CEO Kate Dineen, said in a statement. “A Better City applauds this strategic move and thanks all parties involved for their efforts to address the current bus service crisis facing the Greater Boston region.”

Since Eng took the helm of the floundering transit authority in April, he has repeatedly said that he is committed to prioritizing hiring.

The T has held job fairs in Quincy, Mattapan, Lynn and Revere over the last two months, and over 1,500 prospective candidates have applied to positions during the four recruitment events, according to an informational video shown at Thursday’s board meeting.

The agency has also begun offering free bus operating classes, increased marketing campaigns and offered a $7,500 sign-on bonus for some jobs, such as bus operators. Eng said Thursday that these tactics have yielded an 112 percent increase in average monthly applications.

He also announced that they will create a new position, head of workforce, to “spearhead and drive hiring and retention efforts.”

But struggles remain. Eng announced on Thursday that the MBTA “experienced the largest number of separations this [fiscal] year” with 774 people leaving the organization, but that the T is also likely to see a five-year high in new staff.

The MBTA and Federal Transit Authority each reported that since fiscal 2020, the T has operated with vacancy rates in the excess of 10 percent of the positions they budgeted for, though they were less than 5 percent in fiscal 2019. FTA investigators said the shortages contributed to safety incidents and service delays.

To address this issue, the T’s fiscal 2023 operating budget staffing plan called for hiring 1,759 new staff, increasing the MBTA’s operations headcount by a net 1,091 after accounting for backfilling vacancies.

Eng announced on Thursday that so far this fiscal year the T has only achieved a net headcount growth of 210 new hires – over 800 below their goal.

But, he said the May headcount numbers puts the MBTA on track to achieve its largest headcount increase in the last five years, with external hiring of 983 and internal promotions of 506.

The news came as the T announced a range of additional summer closures aimed at attacking its enormous backlog of slow zones – indicative of deferred maintenance on tracks, signals and other systems – across the subway system, including 14 remaining slow zones on the East Boston and Revere portions of the Blue Line which will come under increased pressure when the Sumner Tunnel is expected to close for repairs this summer.

“There is no denying that we have a lot of work to do and to reverse years of underinvestment to achieve a state of good repair. But we are moving in the right direction, we are making some progress towards delivering a more reliable transportation system that the public does deserve,” Eng told the MBTA board Thursday.

State House News Service staff writer Sam Drysdale contributed to this report.

T, Union Ink Key Deal to Speed Hiring

by James Sanna time to read: 3 min