Can Virginia transit providers innovate their way out of an operator shortage?
Hampton Roads Transit’s Tide light rail running through downtown Norfolk. (Wyatt Gordon)
For just one week in May, Hampton Roads Transit had enough bus operators to provide riders with “reliable service,” according to an internal report.
But for the rest of 2022, Virginia’s largest public transportation provider has struggled to staff its dozens of routes — at one point even facing a dearth of over 100 drivers in order to offer full service to the region of 1.8 million people.
Although HRT may be dealing with one of the worst operator shortages in the commonwealth, the agency’s experience is far from unique. This year, 92% of public transportation providers across America reported struggling to hire new employees. Even worse, nearly three in four transit agencies admitted to having to cut service or delay service increases due to a lack of staff.
As the nationwide shortage of bus operators takes its toll on commuters across the country, Virginia operators are attempting to innovate their way out of the crisis. Will it work?
A pre-pandemic problem
Long before the loss of over a million Americans to COVID-19 and the resultant Great Resignation, public transportation providers already had a problem attracting new recruits.
“I started to research this before the pandemic, and what surprised me is how long ago we saw this coming and how little was done to prepare for these shortages,” said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at the national nonprofit TransitCenter. “This issue was first raised by Obama’s Department of Transportation in 2015, but little was done to address job quality. Sadly, where agencies did take action it was often undermined by COVID, which really hindered recruitment.”
Now, the situation looks set to worsen should transit providers not boost recruitment of younger workers. Whereas roughly 40% of America’s total workforce is over the age of 45, among bus operators that figure is nearly 70%, according to Bus Operators in Crisis, a recently released report from TransitCenter.
In the document, Van Eyken lays out six main issues public transportation providers must address to keep existing operators and recruit new ones: compensation, safety, workplace culture, work hours and scheduling, facilities and outdated hiring processes.
Beyond the broader economic and environmental need to have fully functioning public transit, Van Eyken frames the issue as one of social mobility.
“Solving this is also about keeping a pathway to the middle class open,” he explained. “A lot of the people who ride the bus are also the people who drive it. For a long time the expectation was if you’re a bus driver, then you are middle class, but a lot of agencies’ pay has not kept up, so folks think, ‘Why should I do this hard job if I’m not getting paid well to do this hard job?’ We need to think more about our labor situation.”
Wages and working conditions
Across the commonwealth, increasing pay has proven one of the most effective ways for transit providers to stop the bleeding.
Hampton Roads Transit worked with the operators’ union to increase base pay to $20 an hour, two bucks above the region’s living wage. Top operators can now earn up to $27 an hour. The agency is also offering $5,000 bonuses for new bus drivers, light-rail operators, and mechanics provided they stay with the agency for a certain period of time.
Even Bay Transit — a nonprofit public transportation provider serving the Northern Neck and the Upper Peninsula — had to rethink wages and working conditions to halt its hemorrhaging of staff. At its lowest point, the Bay Transit had lost a quarter of its drivers and was forced to cease operating one of its three seasonal trollies for the first time in history. Today, Bay Transit is just seven drivers away from pre-pandemic staffing levels.
Although the majority of Bay Transit’s operators only earn the $11 statewide minimum wage, those with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) now earn $16.50, the living wage for the area. New $500 referral and $200 annual safety bonuses have also proven popular.
However, a survey of the system’s 74 front-line workers found the biggest issue for bus operators wasn’t wages but working conditions.
“Being a rural system where 75% of our drivers are part-timers in a non-unionized workforce, previously they had not received benefits,” explained Mike Norvell, Bay Transit’s manager of marketing and public relations. This May, Bay Transit began offering paid days off for discipline-free years of service. The five-tier benefit ranged from one day off per year for operators who had worked for the nonprofit for one to three years to five days off for people who had worked 16 years or more.
Such small improvements may not sound like a seismic shift in working conditions, but for the retirees who largely comprise Bay Transit’s drivers, getting any paid time off at all for part-time work is unheard of.
The bus operator shortage has also reminded transit providers of the importance of better assisting and appreciating their employees.
Earning a CDL has typically been an expensive and arduous process, with months of coursework, drug tests and multiple written and road exams. To help accelerate that process, Hampton Roads Transit worked with the City of Norfolk to create the DriveNOW training program at Tidewater Community College.
“Getting a CDL is typically something operators have to go and take care of on their own, but our program is designed to help train them to pass the test and then continue on their careers as an operator,” said Alexis Majied, HRT’s chief communications officer.
Even something as simple as nominating staff for industry awards has gone a long way at Bay Transit. This summer two staff members won “Unsung Hero” and “Exceptional Safety” awards from the Virginia Transit Association that now hang in the nonprofit’s driver break room.
“It’s something that sounds silly, but that type of recognition goes a long way,” Norvell said.
To help its own operators feel appreciated, Hampton Roads Transit started an employee recognition committee this summer and organized a picnic for all staff as well as a few breakfasts and lunches timed during shift changes so that operators could grab a free bite to eat.
“Companies don’t always give their employees the shout-outs they deserve,” admitted Tom Holden, the agency’s media relations specialist. “The picnic was just a time for us to come together since we hadn’t done anything social since the start of COVID. We have a plan to do something every month and keep the picnics going quarterly.”
Despite their best efforts, Hampton Roads Transit and many other providers across Virginia are still well below peak employment. The intransigence of the issue indicates a deeper need to reform American labor relations and boost the prestige of careers in public transportation, according to Van Eyken.
“It’s an opportunity to rethink how we deploy public transit in the United States and deliver a better life not just for the people riding the bus but for the operators who drive them as well,” he said.
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