A group of demonstrators stands on the sidewalk holding signs
More than 50 people protest outside CTA headquarters on October 13 to demand better service Credit: Reema Saleh

When the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) first announced its Meeting the Moment action plan last year, workforce and service delivery issues were at the forefront. Officials pointed to the “Great Resignation” as creating an unusually competitive job market, leading to high attrition rates among bus and rail operators. Mass resignations during the pandemic, along with an aging workforce on average ten years older than the rest of American workers, contributed to existing attrition rates, which lingered and compounded into a crisis. 

Like President Dorval Carter stated last year in front of the City Council: the exodus is far from over. “We’re now hiring at the same level of people that we were at before the pandemic. . . . The problem is I’ve got to stop the hemorrhaging on the other side,” Carter said.

“The days of simply posting a ‘Now Hiring’ notice are long gone,” announced Meeting the Moment, which included new recruitment strategies for replenishing the CTA’s declining workforce—the biggest obstacle to delivering reliable and frequent service. The CTA says it has doubled down on its hiring efforts this year, chipping away at the 1,000 vacancies Carter said were left by the pandemic.

Since the CTA first announced Meeting the Moment, it increased starting wages and partnered with Olive-Harvey College to help job candidates obtain a commercial learner’s permit, the first step to working as a bus operator. To recruit more bus drivers, the CTA abandoned its previous approach of enlisting full-time employees from its existing pool of part-timers and began hiring full-time workers directly.

Entry-level roles saw hourly wage increases and hiring bonuses to compete with the private sector. This year alone, the CTA hosted nearly a dozen in-person and virtual job fairs to advertise entry-level roles and help attendees successfully apply. To track its progress, the CTA unveiled public scorecards for the first time—releasing data on performance metrics that show its progress toward regaining riders, increasing reliability, and closing employment gaps.

However, a Chicago Reader analysis of data from the Meeting the Moment Scorecard through September indicates less promising results. A closer look shows the CTA’s worker shortage has stayed long past the pandemic’s onset.

The CTA has lost both bus and rail workers since the pandemic. The number of bus operators began to rise in 2023, but the CTA has continued to lose rail operators—showing little signs of recovery.

In 2020, the CTA saw a steady exodus of workers, one that still lingers. The agency took its worst losses in 2022—months after the pandemic exacted the brunt of its impact on Chicago. In the three years since the pandemic began, the CTA workforce lost 14 percent of bus and 16 percent of rail operators.

Among transit agencies, the CTA is not alone in its workforce attrition problems. A 2022 survey by the American Public Transportation Association found that 96 percent of United States public transit agencies are experiencing a workforce shortage and 84 percent say these challenges are affecting their ability to provide service.

In New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, workforce shortages led to diminished or delayed service—like the 71 percent of U.S. transit agencies that reported doing so that year. Amid a national shortfall of transit operators years in the making, the CTA had company going into its pandemic-induced staffing shortages.

“Going together with this business, it becomes a very vicious cycle. If you do not have enough operators, then you’re unable to provide service. You can justify it now because the ridership is not high, but you still are obligated to provide the same frequency of service in order to attract the rider back,” said P.S. Sriraj, director of the University of Illinois Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. “If you don’t have the operators, then you put up a schedule and it doesn’t show up in reality, and then people start worrying about the reliability of the service. But this, in turn, is going to keep people away from the service.”

Frustrated with service cuts, Commuters Take Action protests outside CTA headquarters to demand more reliable schedules and new leadership. Credit: Reema Saleh

With short-staffed crews and fewer operators who could fill in behind the wheel when someone calls in sick, the CTA was left without enough workers to deliver scheduled service reliably. The CTA frames its staffing shortages as a pandemic shock it’s recovering from, along with a tight labor market affecting the whole industry.

“Many people took early retirement during the pandemic, mainly because of the worry that they had about their well-being in the line of duty. The opportunities in other sectors were also very attractive, and that made it easier for them to forego this opportunity,” Sriraj added.

In addition to a wave of retirements that hit the CTA during the pandemic, CTA spokesperson Kathleen Woodruff pointed to industry-level shifts across the country, which have encouraged CTA employees to join the private sector.

“The private market has also proven to be a strong competitor for bus operators. The CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) is a highly marketable certification. CTA bus operators are often recruited by package delivery companies, logistics companies, and school districts to help fill voids they too are experiencing in qualified candidates,” Woodruff said.

But these staffing shortages are still happening—an ongoing problem that hit harder in 2022 than at the onset of the pandemic. As we approach 2024, the CTA is making progress toward replenishing its workforce, but it is still far from pre-pandemic levels.

CTA officials announced they hired more than 700 new bus operators since the start of 2023, surpassing their year-end goal of 700. But closer examination shows the CTA also lost 357 employees through September due to “separations”—layoffs, terminations, and resignations. An additional 36 bus operators transferred to other divisions, leaving vacancies behind. Altogether, separations and transfers account for nearly 60 percent of rail employees hired by the CTA this year—bringing the number of new bus operators down to a net 338.

For much of 2022, the CTA lost more bus workers than it gained. While the CTA stepped up recruitment efforts, it appears to have had difficulties filling the gaps left behind. Whether long-time workers leave before they’re replaced or new hires quit entry-level roles, the CTA has struggled to grow over the past few years.

The CTA budgeted 3,707 full-time bus operators for 2023. Despite an emphasis on hiring, the agency has yet to fill remaining vacancies.

“For the most part, they’re reaching their target for hiring bus operators, but that’s still almost certainly not going to be enough to run pre-pandemic service, which is what we obviously want to see because there are cities all over North America that have seen their transit ridership return to pre-pandemic levels because they invested in service and operators,” said David Powe, Active Transportation Alliance’s director of planning and technical assistance.

The CTA has yet to announce an official recruitment goal for rail operators as they have for bus operators. But the Meeting the Moment scorecard shows struggles in growing the division. As of September, the CTA hired 175 new rail workers. But, when accounting for 2023’s separations and transfers, the CTA’s rail division netted only 20 employees.

Filled rail operator positions remain well below what the CTA budgeted for 2023. As of September, 721 rail operators worked at the agency, though it budgeted for 839.

Rail operator training classes took place five times in 2023 and five times the year before, according to documents from the CTA. In 2021, the agency held two classes. Each class is capped at 20 employees, limiting the number of people who can join the workforce. Previously, the agency capped classes at 16.

Increased class sizes led to onboarding an additional 20 rail operators this year. The CTA also brought back nine retired instructors this year to train new hires and current workers, who require recertification every two years.

“The hiring and training for rail operators is a far more complex process and simply cannot be expedited,” Woodruff said. “Rail operators get the most extensive training of any CTA position, given the nature of their duties and of operating complex machinery.”

As part of the training process, new employees must first join as a flagger, a full-time, temporary position that pays a starting wage of about $21 per hour. Since new hires typically lack necessary experience, working as a flagger allows employees to build knowledge on the job. After working as a flagger for multiple months, they can apply for other positions within the division. Additionally, the small size of the rail cars limits how many people can be trained in a rail car at once.

“Each operator trainee who serves as a flagger has been thoroughly trained on right-of-way safety, rail operations, and system communications with our control center. This training and experience in railroad operations are prerequisites for the job—a standard that must not be compromised as it allows CTA to maintain the highest quality of safety standards for customers and employees,” Woodruff said.

“Other cities—like New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco—are running more rail service than ever. There’s no need for Chicago to be falling behind.”

Active Transportation Alliance and Commuters Take Action, two transportation advocacy groups in Chicago, argue the training schedule has created persistent bottlenecks in the onboarding process and contributed to the CTA’s rail operator shortage. Without scaling up the CTA’s training capacity, they believe that post-pandemic service cuts will become the norm.

“We’re pushing CTA to increase capacity so they can train 300 rail operators a year, so they can start adding rail service as soon as possible,” Powe said.

The City Council recently approved the agency’s $1.99 billion operating budget for 2024, a 9 percent increase from this year. Both organizations are pushing the CTA to increase the number of classes and class sizes next year to increase its capacity and avoid further service cuts.

“Since 2019, the CTA’s rail service has been cut by 24 percent, primarily due to the agency’s inability to hire and retain rail operators,” said Commuters Take Action’s Brandon McFadden. “The 2024 budget fails to outline any specific steps that the agency is planning to take to increase the headcount.

According to Woodruff, the agency is currently discussing plans to further expand rail training in 2024. These details will be finalized by the year’s end.

Like many transit agencies across the country, the CTA is adjusting to “a new normal”—charting out a new post-pandemic future for services across the city. Since the pandemic started, the agency’s workforce has been making do with less. This fall, the CTA has seen additional service cuts. According to the Chicago Tribune, CTA’s scheduled bus and rail service will be down roughly 15 percent this year compared to 2019.

Without filling vacant positions, service is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels—a situation that Commuters Take Action characterizes as a 24 percent cut on rail, with regular unreliability after that.

“As the budget exists today, it contains . . . 2019 staffing levels but no outline for increases in rail operator training throughput, leading us to believe the status quo will be maintained through the new year. Without an increase in training classes, natural attrition will prevent CTA from reaching those staffing goals,” McFadden said.

The CTA workforce has not recovered from its pandemic losses; it is still in the same dire situation it was during the height of the pandemic. If COVID-19 sparked retention problems, these shortages have lingered long after, as positions the CTA budgeted remain unfilled.

“Without an overhauled hiring process and focus on improving employee retention, the agency rail service will continue to stagnate. It’s fair to say that the future success of the agency, and even the city of Chicago, rests on the CTA’s ability to hire just over 100 people,” said Commuters Take Action’s Fabio Göttlicher. “Other cities—like New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco—are running more rail service than ever. There’s no need for Chicago to be falling behind.”

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