Graham Kilmer

MCTS Targets Bus Driver Shortage

With bonuses, pay bumps, job fairs and better marketing, but still short of workers.

By - Sep 8th, 2021 10:27 am
MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

MCTS bus on N. Van Buren St. Photo by Dave Reid.

In June, the Milwaukee County Transit System’s long struggle to retain bus operators came to a head when the transit agency announced it would not be providing its Summerfest bus service this year, in large part because of an operator shortage.

The transit system announced that a shortage of drivers, as well as buses, coupled with the music festival being postponed to the fall when transit demand is surging, made it unfeasible to run the special service this year.

In an email Dan Boehm, MCTS managing director, told the county board in early June that, “Despite nearly non-stop hiring and training of new bus operators in the past 12 months, our bus operator count has declined to a five-year low; we went from 772 to 714.”

Less than one month later, the transit system would see its operator numbers rise to 725. In a recent report to the county board, the transit system said as of August 1st their operator count had gone down to 713.

MCTS noted that it hired 160 new operators between July 2020 and July 2021, and it has more than 20 new operators that began training at the end of August.

In a report to the county board laying out the efforts being made to improve operator retention, the transit system said it had instituted a number of bonuses and pay bumps, increased efforts to market the positions and made new efforts to improve communication between MCTS management and the rank and file workers.

MCTS is placing most of the blame for the driver shortage on the COVID-19 pandemic, as transit agencies around the country, as well as other industries, are grappling with retaining and hiring employees.

But MCTS has had fluctuating levels of operators for years. As far back as 2014 the transit system saw its average operator count for the year drop as low as 715. A union steward for the Amalgamated Transit Union 998, Donnell Shorter, offered this view of bus driving in Milwaukee: “At some point it became a job and not a career.”

The shortage has also affected bus service in the county. By early July, the operator shortage caused the transit system to fail in getting .4% of its scheduled bus service on the road. This tiny percentage has consequences, translating to 2,400 hours of missed bus service.

The transit system has offered a $200 a week hardship bonus for drivers that worked from March 15, 2020 through June 26, 2020; increased training pay from $15 an hour to $18 an hour beginning this past month; instituted a new $1,000 signing bonus in May; and a $1,000 referral bonus for employees making referrals for bus operators in July.

The agency has also tripled its advertising budget for job postings, held virtual job fairs with nearly 200 total attendees and hired a recruiter to expedite background checks and credentialing of applications. It’s also making upgrades to employee break rooms, restrooms and water stations to improve the workspace for employees.

The newly overhauled network of bus routes, called MCTS Next, includes more “straight runs” that limit the number of “split shifts” the operators work. These split shifts have the drivers working for a stretch in the morning, then having a long break, then resuming work.

While split shifts do provide a long break, they also functionally lengthen the workday and limit what workers can do with their time off, knowing they have to return to finish their shift.

The transit system also said it has revised its attendance policy and other rules and regulations with an emphasis on “coaching” as opposed to discipline. It’s also added a kind of finders fee, “a referral bonus for active employees for Bus Operator referrals of $1,000 on July 1, 2021,” according to Matt Sliker, spokesperson for MCTS.

In April, MCTS convened two workgroups focused on employee engagement and employee retention. Both groups are using an employee survey conducted in November 2020 to guide their work. Neither workgroups have bus drivers sitting on them.

Shorter told Urban Milwaukee in July that communication was an area that needed improvement, with operators not feeling like management listens to their concerns.

The management workgroups are meeting with operators and ATU 998 representatives, Sliker said. “As a result of this new process, we’ve already identified the need to improve schedules for operators in a way that benefits their well being and encourages better attendance and retention.”

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