The MBTA is hiring new workers at an “unprecedented” rate, but only after several years of cuts in its workforce.
And during a Fiscal Management and Control Board meeting this week, a coalition of MBTA workers, riders, and activists brought receipts — protesting the effects of the staffing downswing.
“The MBTA is quickly becoming the most dangerous transit system in the country, and we feel that’s unacceptable; we know that’s unacceptable,” said Brian Doherty, the secretary-treasurer of the local Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents some MBTA workers.
Doherty’s union is part of a campaign called Safe Transit Now, which launched this week to highlight MBTA staffing data the coalition obtained under a public records request. As the State House New Service reported Sunday, the figures show that the headcount for a group of employees — including electricians, sheet metal workers, painters, pipefitters, and carpenters — decreased 17.5 percent between 2014 and 2019, from 407 to 336.
“Governor Baker has slashed the workforce that maintains the tracks, the trains, and the stations,” Doherty said, adding that derailments had subsequently”soared.”
The Boston Globe reported last summer that the MBTA had the second-highest number of derailments, 43, of any metro transit system in the country from 2014 to 2018, according to federal records (which did not include two incidents in 2019, including the Red Line derailment that impaired service for several months).
During the meeting, Doherty was followed by one person after another voicing a similar sentiment, assailing the decrease in staffing levels. The group argued it was emblematic of what they felt was an insufficient response to their concerns about reliability and safety.
An outside report commissioned by the MBTA last year concluded that cost-cutting efforts after Gov. Charlie Baker took office had come into conflict with the agency’s efforts to prioritize safety.
“There is a general feeling that fiscal controls over the years may have gone too far, which coupled with staff cutting has resulted in the inability to accomplish required maintenance and inspections, or has hampered work keeping legacy system assets fully functional,” the report said at the time.
While the authors insisted that the MBTA remained a relatively safe system, they said there were safety matters in need of “immediate attention.” During a rally outside the FMCB meeting Monday, protesters wielded signs blaming “Baker’s cuts” for the derailments and delays.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone is listening,” Doherty said during the meeting.
Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, has admitted that management needs to improve its culture and communication with front-line workers, particularly when it comes to issues related to safety. However, he also emphasized Monday that the period of budget-tightening was in the past.
“We are hiring at a rate at the MBTA that is unprecedented within recent memory,” Poftak said in response to Doherty and others during the meeting.
As part of the Baker administration’s five-year, $8 billion capital investment plan, Poftak said the T is expected make “close to 1,000” new hires this fiscal year and had already made more hires than in each of the past four years. The FMCB reported earlier this year that the MBTA’s overall headcount had surpassed its 2015 levels. And according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo, it now stands at 6,384, which is above its 2016 peak of 6,142 (payroll bottomed out at 5,559 in 2018)
“I want to be clear: the word cuts keeps getting used,” Poftak said Monday. “We are hiring far and above where we were before.”
Officials say that also stands for the maintenance departments.
Pesaturo acknowledged in an email Wednesday that there was “a reduction in the number of some positions since 2015, “including as part of two 2017 buyout programs it offered to employees.” However, the agency has added 84 new employees in four departments focused on power system, track, and signal maintenance, as well as capital delivery, so far this fiscal year — amounting to a 10 percent increase since the beginning of July (though the figures don’t account for retirements and natural attrition).
Within the specific group of employees represented by the Building & Construction Trades union, Poftak said they had made more than 20 hires this year. The MBTA’s preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which the FMCB approved Monday, includes an additional 40 to 50 hires.
Pesaturo says the MBTA is also “aggressively hiring at a rapid rate” to double the capacity of its safety department, in order to increase observations, inspections, and audits, in the midst of the Baker administration’s plan to accelerate improvements to the system. In his state of the state address last month, the Republican governor also announced he would propose a $135 million increase in the MBTA’s operating budget.
“It’s sad that it took front-line workers exposing that scandal through a public records request for Governor Baker to begin paying attention to this crisis after five painful years for riders, workers, and our communities,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Suspicious of the administration, the Safe Transit Now campaign’s next step is calling for Baker to disclose “every penny” spent on taxpayer-funded consultants. Until then, Doherty says they’re doubtful about the MBTA’s plans to hire more workers, even if the overall headcount has already rebounded above its previous peak.
“It’s hard for the public to trust anything that he or MBTA management says,” Doherty said. “Everyone knows the MBTA has gotten worse under Baker’s watch, and hollow promises won’t fix it.”