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SFMTA warns of ‘chaotic’ service disruptions due to unvaccinated workers

Source: Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

An exodus of unvaccinated transit operators and other workers could lead to major service disruptions this fall, SFMTA officials warned on Tuesday. 

The agency counts 640 total workers, equivalent to 11% of its workforce, who are either unvaccinated or have not yet reported their vaccination status, said SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin at a meeting. Workers who remain unvaccinated on Nov. 1 will be terminated, added Tumlin, leading to “significant” impacts to the agency and an interruption to its service restoration plans. 

More than 300 transit operators, or about 15% of total operators, are presumed to be unvaccinated right now. That number is roughly equivalent to the total number of operators SFMTA planned to hire between June 2021 and Dec. 2022, which could mean a delay of 18 months in its plans to restore full transit service unless more workers get vaccinated. 

“We very much hope that this situation will improve over the course of the next month, but as we hope and work for a better outcome, we are simultaneously planning for the worst,” said Tumlin.

The agency expects “unpredictable” service impacts starting on Halloween weekend, said Tumlin, and SFMTA does not yet know precisely which lines will be impacted. Tumlin said he can provide more information in two weeks when the agency has more information on which employees are likely to be terminated. 

“All options are about drastically reducing the service, and the question is how,” said Tumlin of SFMTA’s mitigation plans. “We expect a lot of uncertainty until the very last minute about….who is missing from which lines.”

“The initial weeks after November 1 will be rather chaotic service reductions,” added Tumlin. “The impacts will be severe and rather unpredictable.” 

In addition to reduced transit service, the agency may also partially suspend or reduce a number of services, including abandoned vehicle enforcement, booting, parking meter enforcement and meter enforcement, starting in November. Eight schools could also see a reduction in crossing guards, or have no crossing guards if vaccination rates don’t improve at the agency. 

Tumlin said that SFMTA is working with its workers to encourage vaccines and to grant exemptions where appropriate, but currently has fewer than 50 employees who have requested exemptions. 

In the meantime, SFMTA has kicked off a process of service restoration planning that appears endangered by a potential loss of hundreds of workers. 

SFMTA’s service planning, which kicked off several weeks ago, involves presenting three options to the public for restoration of pre-pandemic transit service levels in 2022. At prior hearings, Tumlin and other transit officials argued that SFMTA’s transit map ought to be changed in response to reduced demands for downtown service. 

Erica Kato, a spokesperson at SFMTA, said that the agency “will continue to do the planning and outreach for our 2022 network,” but will know more in the coming weeks about how a loss of workers could affect those plans.