MCTS Struggles With Bus Driver Shortage
Situation causing turnover, stress and a loss of 2,400 hours of bus service so far in 2021.
The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is struggling with a shortage of bus operators as it struggles to retain staff.
This problem is not unique to MCTS. Transit agencies around the country are struggling to retain their bus operators. But in Milwaukee, where MCTS is offering $1,000 sign-on bonuses for new recruits, the problem is affecting service and the work conditions for operators.
MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm said the decision was the result of a “perfect storm of challenges,” in an email to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. First, the music festival was moved to September, a peak ridership period for MCTS. Second, the transit system has fewer buses than in previous years. And third, the system is chronically understaffed.
But the challenge to recruit and retain bus operators goes beyond the past year and a half, and it’s affecting more than the Summerfest service.
So far this year, MCTS has been able to staff 99.6% of its scheduled service. But the remaining .4% means that 2,400 hours of service hours did not occur because the transit system didn’t have enough operators.
“Normally, when we are fully staffed, we have enough ‘backup’ operators available to cover the shifts of employees who call out sick,” said Kristina Hoffman, director of marketing and communications for MCTS, in an email. “But due to the bus operator shortage, especially on weekends, there are not enough operators available to cover every missed shift – even when bus operators are offered overtime pay.”
For the past decade, the transit system has seen its staffing levels fluctuate from year to year. Between 2017 and 2019, the annual average number of operators held relatively steady between 767 and 769. The decade low was in 2014 when the average number of operators was 715.
“We’re working on agency-wide initiatives to improve retention, including working with ATU regarding the contract,” Hoffman said.
When the pandemic first arrived in April, MCTS had to cancel a training class of new operators scheduled for April. It also implemented a hiring freeze until the end of June 2020. When trainings resumed, class sizes were reduced by half to allow for social distancing. MCTS hired 125 new bus operators in 2020, but MCTS said it was still short approximately 60 drivers.
“The hiring market today is leaning heavily in favor of employees/job seekers,” Hoffman said, noting that employers in many industries are reporting hiring challenges.
Only 3 percent of the staff turnover in 2020 was due to retirements. Currently, 47% of MCTS bus operators have less than five years on the job. Since 2019, 27 bus operators have quit within their first year. The constant hiring and high rate of attrition has a high price. It costs between $16,900 and $19,200 to train an operator and get them road ready.
“At some point it became a job and not a career,” said Donnell Shorter, a union steward for the Amalgamated Transit Union local 998, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. He remembers being told in his interview in 2004 that “not many people leave here.” That has clearly changed.
Driving a bus has never been an easy job, he said. There’s also no “magic bullet” for the retention problem, which is challenging transit agencies around the country, he noted. “We’re not alone in this adventure when it comes to public transportation.”
Bus drivers in Milwaukee work a punishing schedule: seven straight days of work, then one day off, then three more days of work, then three days off. Plus, given the staff shortage, drivers are sometimes faced with forced overtime and being called in on their day off.
“To get to that weekend,” he said, “It’s a grind.”
“We do get some issues with attendance,” Shorter said, but it’s because the job is burning drivers out. “Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to take a sick day.”
Drivers are working a difficult job, with difficult hours, and trying to balance it with their personal obligations to family and loved ones. Finding child care was especially difficult during the pandemic, when some drivers had to choose between sending their child with cold symptoms to grandparents, or other family, or calling out sick from work.
The driver shortage is worsening the job conditions that were already hard to begin with, making it harder to retain drivers. There may not be an overnight solution to the problem, Shorter said. But there are certainly issues that MCTS could address. One of them being security from harassment or violence by passengers.
“I think if we’re ever gonna become fully staffed with drivers, security has to be solved,” Shorter said.
The union has asked for better security for drivers for years. Bad behavior on the buses leads directly to burnout among the drivers, Shorter said. All it takes is one bad passenger to “make you not want to come into work some days.”
This is a problem that can be solved, he said, as it’s not widespread. Shorter said the issue probably boils down to the same 100 passengers that cause most of the problems on the buses, and who are catching the same buses every day. Solving this problem helps the drivers and the riders, Shorter noted.
But this problem dovetails with another frustration rank-and-file workers have. Many don’t feel like MCTS management listens to them or their concerns, Shorter said, especially when it relates to day-to-day operations. Operators are hearing complaints and fielding questions from the public every day of the week. MCTS does conduct passenger surveys and has a customer service line, but passengers are less likely to use those than to talk to the operator, Shorter said.
“They have a pulse on what’s going on out there,” Shorter said of the drivers, which could help MCTS improve the system. But “that pulse isn’t being used.”
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