What’s behind the bus driver shortage?

November 19, 2021 12:02 am

A Blacksburg Transit bus rolls through downtown Blacksburg. (Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The good news for Blacksburg Transit is that demand for bus service has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. The bad news is that it has 20 percent fewer drivers than they need to reliably run their full schedule of service.

“We went from carrying 4.6 million riders annually to last year carrying just 25 percent of our normal ridership,” said Lincoln Sklar, a spokeswoman for Blacksburg Transit. “This year we’re putting out fewer buses and less frequency than two years ago to compensate for the lack of drivers, but we’re still seeing ridership comparable to before the pandemic.”

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt across the entire economy as the country’s remaining workers realize their bargaining power. However, public transportation faces higher hurdles than most other industries in recruiting and retaining new talent. A commercial driver’s license, an immaculate driving record and a proclivity towards public-facing positions are just a few of the requirements of the role.

“We’re facing a larger shortage of drivers than we ever have in the past,” Sklar said. “There’s a surplus of jobs, and a very limited pool of folks to pull from. Our pool gets even smaller when you consider that in order to hire someone as a bus driver we have very high standards. We require the ability to pass a background check, random drug testing and it’s a skilled position. Our employees carry a lot of responsibility.”

Cuts across the commonwealth

Although the shortage of qualified bus operators is particularly dire in Blacksburg, it’s not a problem unique to the New River Valley. Transit providers across the commonwealth have been cutting service for months in an effort to cope. Down 59 drivers, Hampton Roads Transit was the first agency in Virginia to announce scaled-back service due to a lack of staff in the spring. HRT’s leaner schedule only requires 327 operators instead of the typical 479, but changes have come at the cost of quicker commutes for riders just when the economy began revving up again.

“We’re hearing from a lot of our agencies about the concern,” said Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia Transit Association which represents public transportation providers. “Some of it is the lingering effects of the pandemic. People don’t have child care or their kids aren’t back in school due to virtual learning. They may have family members they have to care for. Agencies are having to terminate routes because they don’t have enough drivers and mechanics to keep buses on the road. That has a significant impact on employment and the economy.”

On top of the child care and elder care responsibilities pulling some folks out of the workforce, there are other more regular reasons behind the slow burn of driver attrition including routine retirements, required firings due to infractions and defections to work-from-home roles. The Greater Richmond Transit Company is still in a position of strength relative to other Virginia agencies.  However, its board of directors recently approved service cuts for the Pulse bus rapid transit line and eight other routes, citing a shortage of operators and mechanics that may only worsen before it gets better.

“We know between now and December we have six to 12 drivers who are going to retire,” said Julie Timm, CEO of GRTC. “Then we have the vaccine mandate. Out of 450 employees — not including our paratransit crew — we have 70 percent so far who have voluntarily reported that they are vaccinated. I’m not sure if this is a game of chicken and hold outs will cave when the deadline to get vaccinated comes or if I will lose a couple dozen people at the end of the year.”

The Pulse, Richmond’s new bus rapid transit line. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Onboarding new operators

The clearest way to conclude the staff shortages is to attract new talent. Many transit providers are using federal CARES Act funding to do just that, including GRTC, which is currently offering new bus mechanics and operators hiring bonuses of  $8,500 and $5,000, respectively. If the strategy delivers results over the coming months, agencies may ask that additional bonuses be authorized with American Rescue Plan Act money in order to return staffing levels — and the much-needed transit service it enables — back to full capacity.

Beyond bonuses, the bigger problem may be basic pay, benefits and working conditions. Labor relations between transit leaders and their teams, as in many industries in America, have long tended towards an unhelpfully adversarial approach. Some of that shifted during the height of the pandemic when management and labor came together to quickly provide personal protective equipment, alter workplace protocols and increase operator safety against the pandemic. Despite that positive progress, pay raises didn’t always follow.

“There is not really a lack of bus operators,” said David Bragdon, executive director of the nonprofit TransitCenter which advocates nationally for better public transportation. “There’s just a lack of labor at the wages employers are willing to offer, so raising pay has to be part of the answer to the perceived shortage. Nationally we have yet to see systemic change in transit’s labor relations, but the situation does call for it.” 

Part of the reason GRTC may not have faced as bad of a worker shortage as other providers may be the relatively rosy relationship between its labor leaders and the agency’s CEO which frequently praises the union as “an asset.” Whereas a new driver with GRTC receives $54,000 base pay, 11 paid holidays, 12 paid sick days, one to six weeks of paid vacation and 85 percent of their health care paid, many other agencies in Virginia still only employ workers part-time so as to avoid the added costs of such basic benefits.

“Our workforce is a combination of students who have another job and drive for us part-time and retirees who drive just when college is in session,” Sklar said. “We offer a starting wage of $13.56 an hour, so as other part-time positions have become much more competitive salary-wise, the Town of Blacksburg has begun a compensation study to increase operator wages. We’re also looking to start hiring, retention and referral bonus programs.”

The added incentives appear much-needed as the local school district recently introduced its own hiring bonuses and raised bus driver pay to $20 an hour. Just down the road from Blacksburg, the city of Radford also increased its transit drivers’ salaries to $19 an hour. Such quick reactions from government officials are especially necessary in a labor environment in which workers with CDLs are increasingly in demand for private sector trucking jobs.

“Transit agencies are in an unenviable situation, and certainly the fact that many of them are public institutions does not make this easier,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy think tank. “The private sector is able to recruit people at wages that can adjust to the market much more quickly than the public sector. Transit providers have the hard job of providing a service within the confines of the public sector. That means it often takes a bit more time to increase the revenue or access the funding to raise wages.

Prioritizing the pipeline

In the absence of any quick funding fixes, transit providers have had to get creative to speed up the hiring of new bus operators. Individual agencies have led online and media hiring campaigns. The VTA has been surveying its members on best practices regarding recruitment strategies, staffing levels and reducing candidate disqualification. Despite all of that innovation, the toughest challenge for transit providers has been that the Department of Motor Vehicles had not been open to the public until several weeks ago.

“We faced major issues over the past year just to get people in for training,” Sklar said. “In order to come to work for us you have to get your CDL permit first, but with the DMV facing staffing shortages of their own, that whole process slowed way down. That meant our timeline for getting people trained and hired lengthened a lot.”

After months of negotiations with the DMV, GRTC’s CEO recently hammered out a solution: “Before, if someone didn’t have their CDL we had to turn them away because we couldn’t test and train them in house,” said Timm. “Now that we can administer the online courses for candidates, that’s helped us have a new bumper crop of drivers coming in. During COVID we had been having just one to two new recruits in each incoming class, but now we’re back to the pre-pandemic level of double digits.”

Multiple systems across Virginia are also working with community colleges to build out mechanics pipeline programs to offer the exact training transit providers require, but such partnerships take time to set up. Some localities have even been exploring how to lend out municipal mechanics to bus systems to serve as pinch hitters for repairs.

What all agencies can agree upon is a strong desire to restore full bus service to their riders. “I would love nothing more than to have a fully-staffed transit system and immediately go back to the conversations we were having pre-COVID about expansion,” Timm said. “Any talk of reducing service is like nails on a chalkboard for me. It’s absolutely the last thing I want.”

With Virginia Tech’s students back in Blacksburg for in-person instruction, the desire for a return to normal has never been greater. “If we could put more buses out there they would all get immediately filled up,” Sklar said. “We would love to bump our frequency back up. The more operators we can get in here the more buses we can get out onto the road. We ‘re always telling people we’re hiring.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.