GRTC CEO Julie Timm says turnover in the transit company’s workforce may require service cuts to the local bus system before the end of the year.
GRTC officials say they are down by about two dozen bus drivers, and are now offering $5,000 and $8,500 bonuses to new drivers and mechanics in hopes of reversing a growing labor shortage.
In a board of directors meeting Tuesday, Timm warned that GRTC’s labor shortage could worsen in the coming months due to anticipated retirements, resignations and the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus and its highly contagious delta variant.
“We’re missing some trips,” Timm said. “If we lose operators, we will have trouble making service.”
In a briefing with news reporters Monday evening, Timm declined to share specifics about potential cuts, but a letter Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney sent to the GRTC board of directors on Tuesday says his administration is concerned about the possibility of up to 20% of GRTC service being cut.
“Equity is unaccounted for in the service cuts and does not show sensitivity toward vulnerable groups,” the letter states. “The city would like to see decisions made on how to avoid service cuts that harm lower-income and vulnerable groups who are more than likely essential workers that depend on the system the most.”
The letter noted that exact proposed cuts have not been formally shared with the city but said they include ending all transit service at 11 p.m. and “significant frequency reduction across the system.” Stoney said in the letter that a decision to cut service seems “rushed,” and he requested GRTC seek an alternative.
While GRTC has remained operational throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with only a few service reductions mostly targeted toward its rush-hour commuter routes, the labor shortage could impede the company’s plans to improve and expand service with the flow of millions of dollars in new annual revenue from a recently formed regional transportation authority.
Despite managing through the pandemic from “a position of strength,” bolstered by $32 million in federal COVID-relief aid last year and a rebound in ridership while maintaining a zero-fare policy, Timm said trouble could be ahead, citing recent developments and industry trends.
For example, New York Daily News earlier this summer reported that the MTA system in the New York City area has lost 6% of its workforce since the start of the pandemic, causing major delays throughout the past year. The Triangle Business Journal in June reported that transit agencies in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area had reduced service because of a lack of drivers.
The shortage of qualified bus drivers has also impacted school systems in Richmond and around the country.
Chesterfield County Public Schools officials last week said they had at least 100 bus driver vacancies, though 350 people have applied for bus driver jobs after the division raised the base hourly pay along with offering $3,000 bonuses. In Massachusetts, dozens of National Guard troops started training last week to help several school divisions without enough bus drivers, according to NBC News.
Tim Barham, GRTC’s director of operations, said Tuesday that the company, as of August, has hired 46 bus drivers since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. During the same period, 59 bus drivers have left.
“We’re losing more people than we’re bringing in,” Barham said. “We’re now losing about three operators per month.”
Barham said departing employees in exit interviews told the company that they were leaving for better job opportunities or simply frustrated with working in public transit during the pandemic.
GRTC data shows that the system saw an uptick in customer complaints throughout the summer, many of which were related to buses and specialized transit service being late or not showing up at all, Barham said.
The data shows that about 15% of all bus rides each month in the past year, as of August, have been late. The system has also failed to complete an average of 3% of its scheduled rides each month during the same period.
Timm said similar service disruptions could happen again this fall and winter. However, she said she does not expect to implement any official route adjustments until the next quarterly service update in December.
A surge in COVID cases last fall and winter significantly impacted service, Timm said, as dozens of drivers and other employees either tested positive or had to quarantine due to exposure to the virus. At least two GRTC employees have died of the virus: 49-year-old bus driver John Thrower and a “non-public facing” employee whose identity GRTC has withheld at the request of family.
About 70% of GRTC’s workforce is now vaccinated. The CEO said that’s helped prevent employee illness and absences, but anticipates that the federal shot mandate President Joe Biden recently ordered could lead some employees to quit rather than get the vaccine.
If the labor situation does not improve, Timm said she hopes that GRTC will be able to partner with the city, neighboring localities and other transportation providers to fill service gaps in case of service cuts.
“I want to make sure that people understand that any service cuts or service adjustments or realignment we do put in place will focus on keeping maximum service on the highest ridership areas,” Timm said. “We will look to use our supplemental partners to make sure that we have service throughout the system.”