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Recession Creates High Anxiety for Transit Workforce

Posted on June 4, 2009 by Steve Hirano

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[IMAGE]MET6workforce.jpg[/IMAGE]After more than three decades working for the same transit system, Arthur Smith [not his real name] was recently notified that his position as a project manager was being eliminated.

In his mid-50s, Smith is immediately eligible for early retirement with a reduced pension payout. He chose to accept early retirement, but not happily.

"This is not good news for me or my family," Smith says. "I had hoped to work for my employer for another nine or 10 years before retiring. Now I will need to seek other full-time employment."

Smith is not alone. The transit industry, like many private companies, is shedding jobs at a clip not seen in decades.

 In recent months, transit properties in many cities have announced plans to pare their collective staffing by thousands of employees, either through layoffs, hiring freezes or a combination of both. All told, approximately 100 transit systems across the U.S. have implemented or are considering service cuts that could lead to reductions in force.

Probably the best example is the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). At press time, the MTA was facing a projected $1.2 billion budget deficit that could force the elimination of 3,000 positions and the layoff of as many as 1,000 workers.

The "Doomsday Budget," as it's being called, sparked a street protest by 2,000 transit union employees who are angry about the proposed layoffs, as well as a possible wage freeze for employees who manage to keep their jobs.

In Washington, D.C., the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) eliminated approximately 300 positions to help reduce its budget deficit from $154 million to $29 million. But the board is considering service reductions for the coming year that could result in more job losses.

In St. Louis, Metro's recently approved budget will force the transit system to operate with nearly 500 fewer employees, mainly bus operators and mechanics. In late April, Metro officials were seeking a $20 million infusion of operating capital from Missouri legislature to restore some of the service that was cut on March 30.

In Southern California, about three dozen bus operators, union representatives and students held a mock funeral outside the headquarters of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to showcase their anger over the recent elimination of 42 jobs. They carried a coffin with a sign saying "RIP Last Stop 2009."

Job stability goes awry

What was once an industry with an exceptionally stable workforce has obviously become shaky, and anxiety among transit employees is high. Public transit's ability to provide its employees with a dependable - if not lucrative - career has weakened.

The fallout has been a loss of morale. In a survey of more than 100 transit employees conducted for this article, three of five (61 percent) said the recession has hurt morale at their organization. One in 10 respondents said they weren't sure whether morale is down, and 29 percent said morale has not been harmed by the recession.

Here are some comments from survey respondents on the question of whether the recession has hurt morale:

  • "Our funding was cut last year due to tax legislation. We had to cut service and only got a 1 percent raise. We all had our department budgets cut and we are in a hiring freeze. Across the bay, some of our peers have lost their jobs. This is too close to home."
  • "We have downsized on a small scale; however, greater reduction of workforce and service is looming. We are concerned for the public we serve, for our department and our personal livelihood. The next few years will be a challenge."
  • "The stress associated with knowing what drastic budget-balancing measures have been employed in other agencies and anticipating the worst case for our agency has adversely affected morale. Just recently we learned that we are fortunate that layoffs are not needed at this time; only a hiring and wage freeze has been enacted."
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