Issues and Reforms for California’s Frontline Transit Workforce

Research Team: Jacob Wasserman (lead), Allie Padgett, and Keenan Ky-An Do

UC Campus(es): UCLA

Problem Statement: The most pressing problems facing public transit agencies and transit operations today are the worker shortage and issues of workforce availability and working conditions. Labor issues are a key factor in transit’s struggle to return service to pre-pandemic levels. To both restore service in the short term and plan for service evolution in the long term, policymakers must understand current conditions in the transit labor market and the best ways to respond.

Project Description: The project investigates why there is labor shortage within public transit and ways to effectively address it. Interviews, wage data, and other sources demonstrate that these shortages were due to both compensation issues and longstanding issues of workforce safety, culture, and practices. Wages have stagnated over the past decade, though California operators earn more than their area’s median incomes, trucking employees, and comparable transit jobs in other states. Workers have made notable gains in recent contract negotiations. Nonetheless, working conditions, which worsened during the pandemic, have driven away existing workers and potential recruits. While health and retirement benefits represent a significant perk of the job, operators face slow wage and seniority progression, two-tiered pensions, high housing costs, grueling schedules and overtime, and security and discipline concerns, atop daunting initial barriers to hiring. Raises alone are necessary but not sufficient: pay is generally lower than necessary to attract and retain needed employees—and recent increases in pay and hardships in other aspects of the job point to the importance of factors beyond wages alone. Agencies, advocates, and unions will need to rethink and expand transit operations funding, raise wages, and implement a variety of reforms: reducing hiring hurdles, expanding outreach, making scheduling fairer, improving facilities and support offerings, removing enforcement duties from operators, and creating career pathways for advancement. Ultimately, the pandemic underscored that transit workforce issues are transit rider issues.

Status: Completed

Budget: $60,000