The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered yet another shortage: bus drivers.
School districts and Mountain Metro Transit are scrambling to fill gaps in their rosters — offering sign-on bonuses, paid training and higher wages as incentives — but landscaping and waste hauling companies are offering even more money.
Sweetening the deal, those driving jobs dodge the vexing problem of dealing with unreasonable and sometimes violent passengers.
The pandemic, Andrew Cottrell says, has been “brutal for the bus operators.
“Quite honestly, a lot of the attrition that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic is because of the public passenger response to our drivers who tell them to have their masks on,” said Cottrell, Colorado Springs general manager for RATP Dev USA, the company through which the city of Colorado Springs contracts Mountain Metro Transit services.
“It’s all a whole other catch-22: It’s for everyone’s safety, but it also creates an argument for our bus drivers at the wheel of a bus.”
Angry passengers “will hit or punch the door window, or a window on the bus, and break that,” Cottrell added. “But it hasn’t escalated directly — in the physical sense — between the bus operator and the passenger.”
The virus itself is also driving the shortage, said Brian Champion, Mountain Metro’s fixed route program coordinator.
“[D]rivers are in close contact with passengers,” he said, “and ... we tend to have an older workforce with our contract employees — so drivers were leery to be exposed to the virus. I think some may have had existing illnesses or situations where they didn’t want to put themselves in that situation. Just like the rest of the population, there was fear with the virus ...”
Cottrell said the human resources team has pulled out all the stops to attract more drivers.
“We raised our starting wage and we found the market across the board raised theirs as well,” Cottrell said. “We’ve seen a lot of hiring bonuses from all kinds of different companies, all kinds of different industries — so it makes it a little bit tougher to compete.”
Champion said Mountain Metro’s ridership has plunged 60-70 percent since March 2020, but it’s the driver shortage — not a lack of riders — that has forced Mountain Metro to eliminate at least two routes and reduce frequency on others.
“We’ve seen a significant drop in the number of applicants,” for driver positions, said Amie Davidson, human resources manager for RATP Dev in Colorado Springs. “It makes our candidate pool a lot smaller.”
Cottrell said Mountain Metro was able to maintain service for the first few months of the pandemic — until an outbreak among drivers and staff last October upended everything.
“Part of that was the mandatory 10-day quarantine if you were around someone who had tested positive,” he said, “and with our operators being around each other, it affected us at the peak. There’d be days where we have 20 operators out, who were waiting on results, who had been exposed to the virus, or had been around someone who was confirmed positive.
“Our daily reporting around that time — it was around 90 employees who were scheduled to work Monday through Friday and 20 of them were out. It drastically affected our operations.”
“We’ve been on a driver shortage for years now,” Cottrell added. “We just saw with the pandemic that it increased recently because of the exposure that the operators are seeing.”
School District 49 is short 21 drivers. It means Cecelia Catherwood, the assistant to D49’s transportation manager, never knows what her day will look like. On her way to work, she might get a call or text from the district’s dispatch office saying she’ll have to fill in on a bus route.
“You come in and if you have to do the job, you do the job,” said Catherwood. “You’re going to go out on the road.”
When Catherwood finishes the morning route, she picks up her normal administrative duties, then she’s out again to drive students home in the afternoon, ending her day at 5 p.m. or later.
All 17 staff in the D49 administration office hold Class B commercial drivers licences and ready to drive if necessary, but after 18 years working for the district, Catherwood has never driven a bus as much as she has during the pandemic.
“All school districts experience a shortage of drivers here and there,” she said, “but this has been the worst for every school district I know in the state of Colorado — and across the country.”
Are health fears a major issue driving the shortage? “Absolutely, absolutely,” Catherwood said. “Especially dealing with children on a school bus and with COVID.”
Catherwood said she’s driving buses a little less this year than last, but that’s only after D49 implemented walking zones in 2020 and reduced service. Elementary school children living within a half mile, middle school children within 1.5 miles and high schoolers within 2 miles of their schools have to walk. Buses also went from 62 elementary or 48 middle and high school students to a maximum of 24 students per bus.
“We’ve actually been short of drivers for the last four years and just keeping up because the office staff was also driving routes and working their own jobs,” Catherwood said. “We finally got to the place where you just can’t work 12 hours a day — so we had to cut routes back.”
Colorado Springs School District 11 is also confronting a driver shortage.
“We’re seven drivers short for the beginning of the year and we could see more,” said Ann Richards, D11 recruiter. “So we’re constantly hiring. The Transportation Department paid for a big billboard to put up. We’ve had four job fairs in the last month to feature bus driving positions. They’ve upped the pay [to $16.40 an hour starting pay; a 90-cent increase] and added incentives for drivers to stay with the job.”
The district has advertised online and in print, and is working with Pikes Peak Workforce Center. They’re not sure what else to do.
“I’m sure we have the same challenges as every other business just competing, trying to get wages up there — because people want the highest wage possible and there are other job opportunities out there,” Richards said. “The challenge is getting enough people to meet school district needs.”
Cottrell said he is looking at changes to bring in more drivers, but the things likely to make bus driving unattractive to new drivers — extra-board work and split shifts — are also the very things that keep the transportation industry moving.
A split shift is a shift that has been divided into two or more stretches of work that the employee will be paid for — but the time in between is unpaid. Cottrell was caught off guard by that when he started driving in 2010.
“I’ve never worked in a place that had split shifts prior to public transportation,” Cottrell said. “It was an eye opener to me, and some people absolutely love it. But typically the newer the driver, the worse the schedule they have because it is voted on based on seniority.” Accounting for some of Mountain Metro’s biggest staff losses, Cottrell said, are the new drivers who quit while waiting to be able to bid on better work.
Cutting down on extra-board work could also boost recruitment, he said. Extra-board employment refers to a pool of workers available to cover for other employees; it makes for unpredictable schedules. An extra-board driver reports to work and could be called to take a route at any moment — for example, if a regularly scheduled driver calls in sick. If no one needs cover, the extra-board driver is paid eight hours to wait. But in a pandemic, the driver is very likely to be assigned an eight-hour stretch of work, even a few hours into their shift.
Department of Transportation regulations allow drivers to be kept on duty up to 15 hours, with 10 of that being drive time.
Normally, extra-board assignments go to those without seniority. Cottrell is looking at the collective bargaining agreement to see what flexibility RATP Dev has in getting what is referred to as “straight work” — work that’s predictable and doesn’t include a split.
“It’s harder to be a bus driver in transit when you are part of a family with younger children, or if you’re a single parent, with people being on extra-board,” Davidson said. “And everybody has to serve their time on extra-board.”
With a reduced schedule, Cottrell said Mountain Metro is able to cover routes with the 80 drivers currently on duty. And if they run short, they’ll use whoever they can — including supervisory staff — to maintain service until their staffing needs are consistently met.
“Right now, it’s kind of a holding pattern,” Cottrell said. “It’s subject to change daily, but we’ve been able to hold our current level.”