One of the main reasons subways and buses have been running late or with delays this fall has been a shortage of workers, caused by a combination of pandemic factors. But now, as the city and state try to reopen, the MTA hopes to improve commute times with its new class of subway and bus workers.

The MTA issued a hiring freeze at the start of the pandemic, to save money as ridership plummeted and the agency was losing $200 million a week. Transit workers also retired in droves. By October 2021, the amount of time subway riders waited for trains increased by 9% across the system, compared to the same time last year.

In order to improve performance, the transit agency has tried to lure back subway and bus workers who’d retired with cash bonuses. But, now, with ridership rebounding, the MTA is racing to fill those vacant positions.

That includes calling back people who applied years ago to see if they still want to work for the MTA.

Neosha Williams, 47, was working at a Northwell Health hospital as an administrative secretary, helping cancer patients book appointments and get the treatment they needed, when she got a call from the MTA this fall. 

A class of Bus Operators prepares to graduate on their final day at the Zerega Bus Maintenance and Training Facility on Wed, December 8, 2021.

She had applied to be a bus operator three years ago, but hadn’t heard back. 

At the time she had just begun her first semester taking classes to be a respiratory therapist, an in-demand job during the ongoing pandemic.

“In both careers, I’m still helping people,” she said, as she thought about which route to take. 

She chose to be a bus driver. 

“I’m still moving people, now I get to move the city,” she said.

It’s also a chance, she said, to bust stereotypes.

“Always felt like people had the perception that women bus drivers have a chip on their shoulder, but that’s not always true," she said.

Williams, said she’s used to making a hospital setting more cheerful and is hoping to do the same thing for daily bus riders.

“If I’m having a good day, everybody on the bus is going to be having a good day, because I believe in vibes,” she said. “If they feel your vibe is great it can spring off on them, and that can lead to everybody having a good day.”

Williams is still in training and hopes to get her assigned route soon.

She admits she mostly drives now and is not a regular bus rider, but looks forward to getting behind the wheel. She had two sons, ages 26 and 11, who can’t believe their mother is going to be a bus driver now.

The MTA says it has already hired 1,300 bus operators, and expects to be back to pre-pandemic staffing levels by the end of the year. 

As for subways, it’s hired over 600 people this year, and plans to hire another 450 in the coming months. The MTA expects the subway crews will be back to pre-pandemic sizes in the middle of 2022.