MBTA workforce expansion faces ‘considerable obstacles’

The MBTA has made significant progress at hiring new employees in recent months, but analysts still see “considerable obstacles” in the path ahead, especially given the added costs of building out the workforce.

Between mid-2022 and February 2024, the T added more than 1,000 net new workers after being slammed by federal overseers for staffing shortages. A new analysis from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates that if the recent pace of additions continues, the agency could reach its fully budgeted head count of 7,600 by the end of 2024.

MTF researchers found that the agency’s operating headcount “fluctuated” regularly after fiscal 2015, with gains followed by declines. More recently, the pandemic and concerns about an arbitrator’s proposed pension changes – which ultimately did not take effect – created a significant shortfall before a hiring campaign featuring greater pay and benefits began yielding results.

The report warned the T “not [to] take future progress for granted” after recent success. By boosting pay and retention bonuses, authors said, the MBTA also committed to more than $100 million in additional annual expenses at a time when the agency is bracing for operating budget shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Worryingly, there were 866 separations from the agency in FY 2023, the highest total to date, of which 579 were not retirement-related. Despite financial incentives that helped staunch separations over the past several months, it’s worth noting that there are approximately 800 MBTA employees (12 percent) currently eligible for retirement,” authors wrote. “Maintaining recent headcount gains could require even higher hiring totals should departures return to FY 2023 levels.”

The T slashed weekday service frequency on the Red, Orange and Blue Lines in 2022 after the Federal Transit Administration said dispatchers were overworked, and those changes still have not been fully reversed.

MTF said a workforce assessment plan being crafted at the MBTA, which could be finished by the summer, should provide more specific information about the status of staffing in some service-critical departments.

“The MBTA’s workforce analysis will likely include a range of service levels tied to specific headcount numbers,” the report said. “The FTA imposed service restrictions before and could intervene again to direct the MBTA to deliver the level of service tied to the workforce assessment and actual headcount data.”

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