Service on the B, M, and Z subway lines was canceled completely while several express lines ran local, due to a shortage of MTA workers Thursday morning. Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad ran close to schedule, but city bus service saw widespread delays. 

The steeply increasing number of COVID-19 cases, driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant, has impacted the transit system since Monday

The MTA didn’t provide the exact number of workers who have tested positive for COVID, but the agency’s acting chairman and CEO, Janno Lieber, suspected at least 1,000 workers were out with the virus this week. He added that many others were on vacation or calling in sick to avoid catching the virus at work.

"We definitely have more COVID cases than in the past, but the flipside is people are getting much less sick, and [there are] so many fewer hospitalizations, and people are coming back to work more quickly," Lieber said.

The MTA had more workers die from the coronavirus, at least 173 to date, than any other city or state agency during the pandemic. 

While New York City municipal employees are required to be vaccinated, New York state employees—with the exception of those working in health care or in long term care facilities—are under a “vaccine or test” mandate, with the unvaccinated employees agreeing to weekly COVID tests

That means there’s no vaccine mandate at the MTA, which employs 67,000 people, many who work in New York City. Even before omicron hit, the agency had 700 testing locations set up for its workers around the city. 

While the MTA believes 80% of its workforce has received at least one shot of the vaccine, a recent breakdown by agencies shows some have higher rates than others. The subways and buses division, which employs the most people, has a 73% vaccination rate, while Long Island Rail Road workers have the lowest, at 68%. 

Governor Kathy Hochul has, so far, declined to require that all state employees must be vaccinated.

At a subway yard in Upper Manhattan, maintenance supervisor David Noven told Gothamist that out of hundreds of people that work there, he suspected about half are out this week.

“Very little is getting done,” Noven said. 

Noven himself started feeling sick Wednesday and tested positive.

He followed MTA protocols and called the agency’s COVID hotline to report his results, but said he had to wait on hold for over two hours. Once he got through, a person from the call center, who’s not a medical professional, advised him to return to work on Monday.

“I'm a little concerned about going back to work on Monday,” Noven said. “I have the vaccine and the booster…but there are many people that work with who haven't had the vaccine.”

Lieber said this week calls to the COVID hotline went up 300-400%, so the MTA asked the third-party that runs the hotline to hire more workers to reduce the wait time. And he said he’s confident that the MTA’s return to work protocols will ensure service returns to normal soon.

Gothamist obtained the byzantine guide for workers to determine whether they should return to work:

A complicated flowchart showing what MTA employees should do if they are exposed to COVID, have a positive test (divided by symptomatic and asymptomatic ) and what they should do

MTA's guidance for employees when they have COVID exposure or symptoms or test positive

MTA's guidance for employees when they have COVID exposure or symptoms or test positive

Some businesses that were already suffering due to omicron surge, are now concerned that lack of reliable subway service will keep workers and customers away.

Michaella Blissett Williams, who owns a chain of salons in Brooklyn called Salon 718, said two workers who live in the Bronx and Queens were late to work Thursday because of subway delays. She worried that her business is in for a rough patch.

“Right now with the climate, with omicron, it’s very difficult for people to feel comfortable going out and if we give them one more obstacle, they’re just not going to come in,” she said.

Stil, Lieber is confident that with the recent hiring spree at the MTA for bus and train operators, the agency will be able to maintain relatively regular, 24-hour service in the coming month.