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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Area Transit Authority says a staffing shortage is making it harder to provide reliable service.

Like thousands across Memphis, Vernon Watson relies on public transportation to go everywhere — the grocery store, the doctor’s office and work. He says since the onset of COVID, service has been beyond bleak.

“Right now, I’ve been waiting 20 minutes to 30 minutes for a bus,” Watson said recently.

It’s a wait Watson said he’s come to expect when he goes grocery shopping along Poplar Avenue in Midtown.

“It’s typical. Sundays much worse. We are talking about maybe a two-hour wait,” he said. “Very frustrating. A lot of times if I’m not carrying too much, I’ll just walk home and I beat the bus there. That should never happen.”

He said he’s been using MATA his whole life and this may be the worst he’s seen it.

Sammie Hunter with the Memphis Bus Riders Union said countless riders have complained.

“People are standing and waiting on buses some buses are not showing up,” Hunter said. “It is unacceptable for this transportation to be like it is. It’s unacceptable for these bus riders to be going through what they’re going through.”

The Memphis Area Transit Authority admits it’s not meeting its goals when it comes to reliable service.

“It’s a work in progress,” said CEO Gary Rosenfeld.

He blames a staffing shortage “exacerbated by the pandemic.”

He said the pandemic impacted the workforce from staff contracting or being exposed to COVID to more employees retiring early.

“Now when people are hitting retirement age, they are giving it serious consideration,” Rosenfeld said.

To top it off, there’s a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, a problem every transit agency is facing.

Rosenfeld said to compete with other transportation companies in the Mid-South, they’ve increased wages, offered sign-on bonuses and training programs. He says it’s only done so much, though.

“People can take a job with far less responsibility and earn almost as much as they might here at MATA or other transportation companies,” Rosenfeld said.

He pulled up staffing numbers during our interview in September. At that point, he told us there were 89 openings in every category including mechanics who inspect buses to get them back on the street, bus and trolley operators and administrative staff. He said they hired 154 people this year and 46 already left.

WREG submitted an open records request on September 3 to get a breakdown of staffing levels now and at the start of COVID to give you a better idea of the staffing shortage MATA claims to have. It’s information other public agencies quickly provided.

MATA denied the information requested. Its attorney later added MATA “has no employees” and “all transit personnel are employed by Mid-South Transportation Management, Inc.”

That means MATA has a contract with a private company to oversee employees and that private company decides what to release.

MTM was willing to release some information. As of October 31, it had 47 operator and 14 mechanic positions open.

As of Jan. 2020, 186 employees left MATA, including nine who retired. A majority were bus operators.

“We need to ensure we are operating as efficiently as possible, and that’s a daily chore we go through here at MATA,” Rosenfeld said.

MATA reports that compared to last year, it’s seeing more riders every month. More riders who expect and rely on dependable service.

“We need to get on this thing. They really need to stop neglecting transportation, because transportation is vital to your city,” said Hunter.

Interested in a job at MATA?

MATA said it lists all current job openings online. Click here if you’d like to apply.