Service crew

MTA cuts subway service as crews face ‘dramatic’ rise in COVID rates

As the omicron variant continues its rapid spread in New York City, an increase in COVID-19 cases among the city’s transit workers is disrupting service on subways, buses and ferries.

The MTA announced on social media its intention to cut service and redirect teams this week, describing the cuts as a “proactive step” to ensure that enough personnel are available to avoid canceling trips.

On Monday, a shortage of work crews led to delays on several metro lines, including lines B, C, F and M. Dozens of city bus routes were also affected.

In a radio interview, MTA Interim President and CEO Janno Lieber acknowledged that positive COVID-19 cases among transit workers had increased “significantly,” but he also downplayed the impact of service cuts on everyday New Yorkers.

“It’s nothing like what you hear from the airlines,” Lieber said on 1010 WINS, referring to the cancellation of hundreds of flights in the New York area over the weekend.

“We have a lot more people due to COVID, but we are making these adjustments and the service is operating as we have since COVID began,” he added.

The MTA declined to share the exact number of employees sick with COVID-19. But according to published reports, 169 workers tested positive for the virus between December 9 and December 16, a jump of more than 150% from two weeks earlier.

The surge in cases comes as the MTA is already struggling with a shortage of workers due to a hiring freeze that was imposed at the start of the pandemic to cut costs.

Although that freeze was lifted earlier this year, the agency has struggled to bolster its workforce as ridership has rebounded. In November, operator vacancies accounted for more than 28% of all weekday subway delays, the highest proportion of any delay category.

In response, the transit agency moved to address the shortages, offering cash bonuses to retired train operators to return to work for three months, while aggressively recruiting new employees. The MTA said it expects subway crews to return to pre-COVID numbers by the middle of next year.

It’s unclear whether the spike in omicron cases will impact the agency’s efforts. According to Lieber, the recent spike resulted in “a very low number of hospitalizations.”

Unlike city and private sector employees, state-run MTA workers are not currently required to be vaccinated. On Monday, Governor Kathy Hochul said she has no plans to change that policy, which requires unvaccinated workers to undergo regular testing.

“We don’t want to prevent New York’s workforce from having the proper transportation channels they’re used to,” Hochul said.

“There is nothing we can do to create a dynamic where there are no trains picking people up for their jobs in the morning or bringing healthcare workers to their jobs in hospitals.”

On the Staten Island Ferry, staffing shortages fueled by omicron also led to a reduction in peak hour service from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation confirmed.