Someone Take the Wheel

The retail and hospitality industry aren’t the only industries that are desperately seeking employees. Lane Transit District is experiencing a shortage of bus operators and difficulty in recruiting new hires. 

The agency says it’s a part of a national trend and due to bus operators retiring during COVID-19. The shortage has resulted in LTD stopping some routes and programs. 

Local Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) board executive member Bill Bradley says the shortage is actually because there are more stable and competitive wage job opportunities elsewhere, and that bus operators at LTD are feeling overworked. But he says it’s an opportunity for the union and LTD to revisit the wages and benefits to make the job more attractive for a younger generation before LTD has an even bigger shortage from retirements. 

Before COVID-19, LTD spokesperson Pat Walsh says the agency had a fairly full roster, but that changed as the pandemic went on. “With retirements and other things, we’re in a position where we have to find new operators,” he says. “It’s been within the last year or so that our market has caught up with the rest of the nation with the shortage.”

Bradley, on the other hand, says retirement is just one reason why some operators left LTD, and that there’s more to the story. “I’ve been a union officer at LTD since 2012, and I’ve never seen the amount of voluntary separation that I have now. I’ve got an active list of members seeking other work.”  

When the pandemic first started and LTD didn’t know how its finances would be impacted by a shutdown economy, the agency decided to lay off 40 bus operators as well as administrative staff, Bradley says. And that’s something that transit agencies similar to LTD didn’t do, he says. 

When bus operators were called back to work, some of them decided to find jobs elsewhere, he says, driving cement trucks or logging trucks. A commercial driver’s license is a golden ticket, he adds, and there’s a high demand for drivers everywhere right now. 

Bradley says the bus operators who returned to LTD are now experiencing the effects of LTD’s labor shortage as it slowly expands bus services. 

“They’re working longer hours in a day, and sometimes at six days a week. You can volunteer to work a seventh day, but you could be required to give up your sixth day,” Bradley says. “You don’t know what you’re going to be working tomorrow until 4 o’clock today.” 

That environment is difficult for bus operators, Bradley adds. They used to work five days a week and had the option to take on extra shifts only if they wanted. Since the more senior bus operators aren’t taking extra shifts to limit exposure to COVID-19, those are also falling on the new hires, “so they’re getting a double whammy,” he says. 

LTD’s per day boarding numbers are low compared to pre-pandemic data. Currently, LTD has 15,000 average riders per day, compared to 35,000 per day previously, Walsh says. 

But the agency is planning to increase service as fall terms begin at University of Oregon and Lane Community College. Bradley says LTD wants to move up to 80 percent of pre-COVID-19 service levels. And if that happens, he adds, some bus operators will continue to work six days a week. 

But the bus operator shortage has affected LTD’s programs. 

“We’re looking at what it is we can provide in terms of service,” Walsh says. “We’ll continue with the service we provide now. They’re will be service adjustments in September, but in terms of programs like Transit Tomorrow and MovingAhead, those are on hold for right now.”

Walsh adds that the LTD Board of Directors decided to temporarily suspend work on Transit Tomorrow, an LTD plan to increase bus frequency, adding the number of routes with 15 minute services, for example. MovingAhead is a city of Eugene and LTD collaboration to increase mass transit. 

Before layoffs, LTD had 190 bus operators, Bradley says, and had plans to bring on 20 more to follow through with plans of expanding service under the Transit Tomorrow program. Currently, LTD has 175 bus operators. 

Bradley says he’s optimistic that LTD will work with the union to address retention and recruitment issues. ATU and LTD agreed to extend their contract bargaining until June 30, 2022, because of the pandemic. In order to make the transit agency an employer of choice again, he says the union may consider pursuing contract bargaining early. 

The average LTD bus operator is 50 years old, Bradley says. “There’s going to be a retirement wave that’s coming,” he adds. “But we’ve gotta plan for how we’re going to refill these jobs and be attractive to a younger generation.” 

And to do that, LTD has to address work-life balance, wages and a benefits package that isn’t enough to bring on new hires, he says. Before the pandemic, when LTD would open the application process for hiring new bus operators, there would be hundreds of applicants, Bradley says. But now? “We can’t even fill a class of 10,” he says. The first class only had five people, and the second class only seven, he adds. 

Bradley says a possible reason why LTD is having a tough time recruiting is related to a changing world. In addition to wage competition from other CDL-related driving jobs, he says retail and restaurant workplaces are also offering higher wages, as well as likely to provide more of a work-life balance for their employees. 

“Right now we’re certainly not the employer of choice that we once were,” Bradley says. “It’s going to take ATU and LTD working together to solve that.”

This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.