As Omicron Infects Workers, Subway Service Suffers

As a dizzying surge in coronavirus cases spurred by the fast-spreading Omicron variant has disrupted life in New York City and undermined its economic recovery, its subway system — the nation’s largest — has confronted a staggering worker shortage that has hampered its ability to keep trains running.

On any given day this week, 21 percent of subway operators and conductors — about 1,300 people out of a work force of 6,300 — have been absent from work, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the city’s subways, buses and two commuter-rail lines.

The soaring jump in absenteeism, which the transportation authority attributes to the virus, has meant a lack of workers to keep up with the regular train schedules, leading officials to suspend service this week on three of the system’s 22 subway lines and reduce schedules on many others, leading to longer wait times.

The unraveling of train schedules is the latest hit to a transit network that has been battered by the pandemic, which has killed more than 150 workers and chased away millions of daily riders and the fares they hisse, inflicting a brutal financial blow that threatens the system’s future.

The worker shortage has not shut down service at any of the system’s 472 subway stations — all those on the suspended lines are served by other trains. But the disruptions have led to longer commutes and travel delays for riders, a major challenge for transit officials who were hoping to lure back more passengers at the start of the year.

“I feel like it’s been bad since Christmas,” Jennifer Hall, 41, said Wednesday morning as she waited with her son for a D train in the Bronx.

The surge in worker absences comes as the transportation authority has already been contending with a smaller work force after a rush of retirements and a pandemic-related hiring freeze was lifted last February.

Unlike other public sector workers, transit agency employees are not bound by a vaccine mandate, but if they are not vaccinated they have to submit to weekly testing.

The staffing woes are also part of a larger pattern afflicting the travel industry and transportation agencies across the country. Airlines have contended with thousands of cancellations, some of them tied to pilots, flight attendants and others calling in sick with the coronavirus. Transit officials in Washington, D.C., and Boston have cut bus service because of rampant virus cases among employees.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has caused upheaval across New York City, shutting down Broadway shows, restaurants and stores, and causing businesses to send workers home or further delay return-to-office plans.

Craig Cipriano, the interim president of the division of the transportation authority that runs the city’s subway system, said officials first grew concerned about an increasing number of absent workers toward the end of December as the Christmas holiday approached.

“We have seen increased sick calls, more than we have seen in the past,” said Craig Cipriano, the interim president of the division of the transportation authority that runs the subway system.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

“We have seen increased sick calls, more than we have seen in the past,” he said. The number swelled through the end of the year, with unplanned absences currently more than three times higher than their typical levels before the pandemic.

The recent jump has eclipsed a similar wave of absences caused by the arrival of the Delta variant last summer, though in both cases, the worker shortage was nowhere near its peaks in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic first swept across the city.

But with New York at a virtual standstill then, there were fewer passengers to notice the upheaval. Subway ridership this week stood at about 40 percent of prepandemic numbers, transit officials said. That is a drop from levels that climbed above 50 percent in November, but still represents millions of passengers.

On Wednesday morning, as city residents on the affected lines traveled to their first workdays and school days of the year, many griped about the virus-related interruptions to their schedules.

Amanda Aponte, 51, said she had experienced delays as long as 20 minutes waiting for the D train to take her from the Bronx to Manhattan for medical appointments. When the trains do arrive, she said, the cars have been more packed than usual.

“Normally I try to leave at 8:45 a.m.,” she said, as she stood on the platform at the Fordham Road station at 8 a.m. “Today I said, ‘Let me just take my chances and get there earlier.’”

Mr. Cipriano said that he and other transit officials believed the delays had been relatively minimal. But as riders waited for their trains on Wednesday, they disputed his assessment, saying that train service had become frustratingly unreliable and that they have had to shuffle their schedules to get places on time.

Luis Toledo, 37, said he has had to leave home 15 minutes earlier to arrive on time to his job as a porter in Manhattan.

“That’s the only way I can get to my job,” Mr. Toledo said. “I hope they do something about it.”

Henry Raine, a librarian, used to be able to hop on a B train in the Bronx and ride 16 stops to the 81st Street station in Manhattan, a trip that — on a good transit day — used to take about 30 minutes. But the suspension of the B line meant that his commute now required the use of two lines and is taking as long as 45 minutes.

The subways are not the only transit service affected. Bus service in the city, a vital link in many neighborhoods where the subway does not reach, was running at about 85 percent of olağan levels, Mr. Cipriano said. About 3,100 of the transportation authority’s 12,000 bus operators, or roughly 26 percent, were out on unplanned absences this week.

It was unclear on Thursday morning just when subway and bus service might be fully restored. To some extent, transit worker shortages have been a hallmark of the pandemic recovery both in New York and across the nation. For months, the M.T.A.’s refrain on social media and its website has been “we’re running as much service as we can with the crews we have available.”

Still, Mr. Cipriano said there was reason to believe that the suspensions and delays caused by virus-related worker absences would soon ease, though he would not specify when. Already this week, he said, the absentee numbers showed signs they may be reversing.

Transit employees who test positive for the virus get up to two weeks of sick leave beyond their standard sick time, which is 12 days per year. In the transit authority’s guidance to employees, which mirrors recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it suggests that vaccinated workers who test positive for Covid-19 must isolate for at least five days and can return to work only if they have been without a fever for three days, have no runny nose and a “minimal cough.”

Unvaccinated workers who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus must isolate for 10 days before returning to work.

Transit officials have said that about 80 percent of its roughly 67,000 employeeswere vaccinated, and that they were unlikely to impose a stricter vaccine requirement out of concern that it might further disrupt service at a time when the system can scarcely afford it.

Still, Mr. Cipriano said that even if worker absences continued to grow, he did not foresee a situation in which round-the-clock subway and bus service would cease. Officials would most likely increase the gaps between train and buses, as they had done at various points throughout the pandemic, but stations and bus stops would continue to be served in some capacity.

“No real doomsday scenarios,” he said.

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