RTS heads into busy season short on bus drivers
Published: Sunday, August 24, 2014 at 3:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 24, 2014 at 3:58 p.m.
Bus drivers are volunteering to work overtime to fill 13 open routes the Gainesville Regional Transit System has not filled, a situation the local union president said reflects larger problems in the agency.
Transit operators choose their work assignments for the fall on a seniority basis, RTS spokesman Chip Skinner said. Thirteen runs remain unfilled because of the agency's vacancies.
RTS has enough bus drivers volunteering to work overtime to fill those gaps, so Skinner said he isn't expecting any service impact.
Some assignments — which can include two or more routes — are usually open at the start of the fall schedule each year, he said. RTS last week began its fall schedule, which corresponds with the University of Florida and Santa Fe College fall semesters. The runs are adjusted during the slower summer months.
Mary Frances Folz-Donahue, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1579, said having so many open assignments means more stress on the workforce and a lack of consistency for passengers on certain routes.
"It does impact the service, but it's more of an impact on the drivers," she said.
It's difficult to start the fall semester so short-handed since the end of August and beginning of September is RTS's heaviest ridership period, Folz-Donahue said.
Although the city increased the number of transit operator positions from 185 to 195 in 2012, RTS added bus service later on, she said. Those 10 positions were meant to provide extra help in covering service gaps, but the number of work assignments has risen from 185 to 194 while the number of driver positions has not increased.
This situation speaks to what's going on in the RTS workplace at large, she said, citing turnover and recruitment problems.
"What happened was when the economy crashed, the turnover went down to nothing because everybody was afraid they wouldn't be able to get another job," she said. "But the economy's been gradually getting better and that means that the turnover goes up."
Employees are being wooed away to other jobs and RTS can't train people quickly enough to bring the roster back up again.
"There's quite a number of months between seeing the need to hire another employee and actually having an employee be on the road driving," Folz-Donahue said.
RTS adds runs due to demands for service, which is why the number has increased, Skinner said. An increase in service can come sooner than RTS can fill the necessary operational positions.
The city's lengthy hiring process is also a challenge, he said. It typically takes about two months from when someone applies for a position to when they set foot in the door.
Then add a training period of four to six weeks for bus drivers who already have a commercial driver's license or six to eight weeks for those who don't have one yet.
"It could be a quarter of the year gone before we can get them actually out on the road," he said of new hires without a CDL.
However, Skinner said the turnover he's seeing is typical for RTS.
"It's nothing I haven't seen in previous years," he said. "I haven't seen an increase in people leaving their positions or anything."
Wages also have been a major issue for ATU Local 1579, which covers around 230 RTS employees and declared impasse in January over wage negotiations with the city.
At $12.63 per hour, starting pay for RTS bus drivers is a little low compared to other agencies, Folz-Donahue said. Their top-level pay is $16.92 an hour, which is also low compared to RTS's peers.
Many employees aren't even making that because there is no pay progression for RTS employees, she said. Due to changes in recent years, the pension is no longer a draw for prospective hires either.
The union asked for a pay progression plan for RTS employees in which their salaries would increase based on their years of service.
Instituting that plan would help stabilize the workforce and improve morale, she said. While it wouldn't put RTS above other agencies, the proposal would put it much closer in line with them.
"I hope that the city's elected officials will realize that we're really asking for something that's very modest but I think would affect a real beneficial change," she said.
Scott Heffner, the city's chief negotiator, said there's been a hearing regarding the impasse with a special magistrate, who will eventually issue a recommendation. The City Commission isn't required to abide by that recommendation, though.
The city offered a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise as well as some incentive pay, namely a retention bonus and a bonus associated with safe driving, he said. That offer potentially would have cost the city about $162,000 per year.
The union's proposal for a step plan for wages based on years of service would have cost the city about $685,000 in the first year and would have obligated an annual raise for bus drivers.
Risk Management Director Steve Varvel said the city is interested in tying employee pay to performance.
There is the "Grand Canyon in difference" when it comes to the philosophies between a step plan versus a base increase and some incentive pay increases, Varvel said.
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