A hiring blitz during Gov. Maura Healey’s first year in office boosted the MBTA’s headcount by more than 10 percent and “set a new bar for the T,” officials said Thursday.

Fueled in large part by labor agreements that boosted wages and rolled out retention bonuses, the MBTA hired 1,480 new employees in 2023 and promoted 511 others to boost its workforce, long viewed as key to addressing some of the agency’s deep-rooted problems.

After accounting for 750 employee departures over the course of the year — which was also the highest amount in several years — the MBTA added a net 730 new full-time employee equivalents to its roster, pushing the total headcount above 7,000.

“We’ve closed the year out with an increase of 730 FTEs to the MBTA, which is, again, I can’t repeat it enough, an outstanding accomplishment for the organization,” MBTA Chief Workforce Officer Ahmad Barnes said Thursday.

The agency has suffered from hiring and retention struggles, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic spread labor challenges across  sectors. And the consequences have been potent: staffing shortages have played a major role in safety lapses and unreliable service.

The MBTA continues to lag the workforce size that some onlookers have said is necessary. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said in April the T needed to hire 2,800 workers in the next 12 months to ensure safety and progress. Federal Transit Administration investigators suggested in August 2022 the T might need roughly 7,300 to 7,800 workers to safely manage its level of service at the time.

Healey said in her inaugural address a year ago that the T is “woefully understaffed — and we know that lack of staffing has had grave consequences.” She pledged at the time to fund the hiring of 1,000 additional workers focused on MBTA operations within her first year.

T data indicate that collective bargaining agreements reached with employee unions played a major role in the staffing improvements.

The state and Boston Carmen’s Union ATU Local 589 agreed to a contract in August that will raise pay 18 percent over four years, boosted starting wages for bus drivers from $22 per hour to $30 per hour, and also offered “longevity” increases and bonuses to incentivize veteran employees staying on the job.

Since then, Barnes said Thursday, the T has received a 450 percent increase in applications for bus driver openings and a nearly 300 percent increase in applications for light rail operator jobs. Meanwhile, the attrition rate of existing employees leaving between October and December was roughly half what it was in the same span a year earlier.

Several other unions also reached agreements with the T this year. A presentation Barnes delivered said nearly 80 percent of the affiliated workforce is covered by the new contracts, marking the “earliest in a contract cycle this percentage of [the] workforce has been under contract in 40+ years.”

“It has set a new bar for the T. It has permanently changed the way the hiring process works,” said MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore. “This month alone, we’re again going to exceed our highest numbers in terms of hiring, so this isn’t a flash in the pan. This is a transformative change in the way the T does business and does its hiring.”

Data presented Thursday show that the T last year far exceeded its goals for hiring Black and African American workers, but fell several hundred employees short of hiring as many Asian and Latino employees as it hoped.

Roughly one-quarter of new hires in fiscal year 2023 and so far in fiscal year 2024 were women, which is also well short of the agency’s equity goals.

Service on the core subway system continues to be choppy, with entire sections going offline periodically for repairs that the T believes will lead to a restoration of normal service by the end of 2024.

The MBTA has not reversed Red, Blue and Orange Line weekday service cuts they implemented in June 2022 after the FTA said overworked, understaffed operations dispatchers posed a safety risk. The T’s leaders initially said the cuts would be reversed as soon as enough dispatchers came on board, but later moved the goalposts to suggest there still were not enough rail operators or vehicles.

Barnes on Thursday described the operations control center as “one of the areas that I think we’ve always had concern about.”

(Copyright (c) 2024 State House News Service.

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox