As boarding counts inched up on the Regional Transportation District’s faster-recovering bus routes in the fall, officials faced a frustrating reality.
They couldn’t run buses more often, extend service hours or restore pandemic-suspended routes, including additional Flatiron Flyer lines to Boulder County stops. Their drivers were stretched too thin — the result of a deepening operator shortage that became a crisis more than six years ago.
“Once we got out of the initial pandemic and got back into trying to bring back service, it became our primary issue — and it still is our primary issue,” said Bill Sirois, RTD’s senior manager of transit-oriented communities and a leader of its “Reimagine RTD” planning initiative.
Ridership is slowly recovering, reaching about 53% of pre-pandemic levels in November, and metro Denver’s transit agency faces increasing pressure to add back more service. But the staffing shortages, which extend beyond its bus and train operators to other key jobs, have grown worse in some ways in the last two years, posing an even greater challenge than money.
Overall, RTD says service levels stand at about 70% of what they were prior to the pandemic. On most bus routes and trains, that is sufficient to handle current ridership. But top officials have acknowledged to the agency’s board in recent months that some of them are getting crowded enough to merit additional service.
On the labor side, Debra Johnson, the CEO and general manager since late 2020, told board members that the agency had fallen short in its recruiting efforts in the past. It’s retooling, she said, to attract more workers in an increasingly competitive job market that’s resulted in national shortages at transit agencies, the trucking industry and in many other sectors.
Both agency and union leaders expressed hope in interviews that contract negotiations underway now would result in a new agreement that increases pay and improves work conditions, making it easier to close job gaps.
A bus operations report filed this month shows that during all of 2021, the division hired 91 people — while 167 left their jobs. Just since late summer, its bus driver vacancies have increased from 134 full- and part-time positions to 174, or 18% of operator jobs.
Across RTD’s operations, several other positions are short by 20% or more, including operators for the N-Line commuter rail train, general repair technicians, track maintainers, and two categories of mechanics, according to updated numbers provided by RTD to The Post. Among 10 positions, the highest vacancy rate was 40% for signal and power maintainers, with 21 of 52 jobs unfilled.
“Overall, it’s still crushing. We’re talking about shortages to meet the shortages we have right now,” said Lance Longenbohn, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents many of those employees.
One factor that long hindered both hiring and operator retention has gone away: mandated overtime. RTD began requiring sixth shifts each week for hundreds of lower-tenured bus operators in 2015 and followed suit for many train operators later, but the practice ended nearly two years ago. Johnson says she doesn’t want to resurrect it.
Before the pandemic, RTD had proposed a plan to trim back service in early 2020 to eliminate the need for required overtime. Instead, its board ended up slashing service much more severely — by about 40% — after ridership plummeted by 70% in the early days of the pandemic. RTD has since restored some service, with the most recent notable additions taking effect in September.
But two more batches of service changes have followed — first for January and now for this coming May — without substantial restorations, given the staffing situation.
RTD recently proposed a “system optimization plan” produced through the Reimagine initiative. If approved, it would serve as a guide map to restore service to 85% of pre-pandemic levels within the next five years, with significant shifts in current service to make it more efficient, serving more riders.
But can RTD pull it off?
“As ridership comes back, we hope, expect and intend to have the operators and mechanics and all the support necessary to be able to grow it over those multiple years,” said Bill Van Meter, the agency’s assistant general manager of planning. “So there’s going to be this art and balancing act for us.”
“We’re not making headway,” rail chief says
Notably, the rail operations division has made progress in closing its gap for light rail operators, with vacancies now at 15 out of 190 positions, or 8% — down from roughly a third two years ago. Last year, through November, the division reported hiring 68 people while 71 left their jobs — a ratio that at least was closer to treading water.
But the division’s leader isn’t breathing easy.
“We’re not making headway,” assistant general manager Dave Jensen said, adding: “We’re not drowning — water’s not flooding us. But we’re losing ground in as much as I haven’t been able to cover the absentee rate.”
For riders, the shortages mean unpredictable bus and train schedules, with a smattering of runs canceled on a near-daily basis. That happens when an operator is out and RTD exhausts its “extra boards” of operators on standby, along with other forms of backup that have included enlisting supervisors. Cancellations also have occurred on commuter rail lines — especially on the A-Line in recent weeks — when RTD can’t supply a second crew member to provide security, as required for those trains under federal law.
One worker’s absence can mean several canceled runs spread out across a day. The last month saw increasing cancellations on short notice as RTD dealt with a surge of COVID-19 cases within its ranks as the omicron variant spread.
Variations on RTD’s problem have played out elsewhere: New York City’s subway system recently attempted to lure back retired workers to fill temporary jobs. San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System trimmed its bus schedules by 8% to avoid canceling trips, and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority also opted to reduce bus service as it grapples with an operator shortage.
Like manufacturing, trucking, construction and several other industries, public transit providers have struggled to recruit the next generation of workers — a problem that goes back years before the pandemic.
RTD is among transit agencies seeing high rates of retirement. Between 2010 and 2020, the share of transit workers nationally who were 55 or older increased from 30% to 42%, according to an analysis by the Shared-Use Mobility Center.
“We’re all facing the same challenges, and we’re also seeking the same workforce,” said Pamela Boswell, the vice president of workforce development at the American Public Transportation Association.
“I would tell you,” she added, “that there are many transit agencies that are reviewing their recruitment, hiring and training practices, realizing that this is a new workforce. And there has to be an enhanced level of training to encourage employees to stay there.”
RTD’s approach includes hiring bonus
RTD began offering a $4,000 hiring bonus for many positions in mid-November. In an interview with The Post, human resources director Racel McMurray detailed the recent expansion of her recruiting team — from four to six — and other efforts that she said were helping RTD to develop “a more purposeful approach” to hiring.
Jensen and his bus operations counterpart, assistant general manager Fred Worthen, said their hiring challenges have changed during the pandemic.
For starters, the agency stopped hiring early on, then in late 2020 issued layoff notices to about 250 operators and other frontline employees — before rescinding them in early 2021, after a new batch of federal pandemic aid was promised. Such decisions, made under financial duress, eroded earlier progress.
Increased competition from other types of employers means fewer applications are coming in these days. And current pandemic social-distancing protocols limit the size of each training class, Jensen said, reducing their capacity.
It’s also a different story with workers who leave.
Before 2020, “a lot of our attrition had to do with the mandatory overtime,” Worthen said. “Now, we’re primarily hearing from folks that are leaving, one: ‘I can’t afford to live in Denver anymore.’ … Others, though, are finding more competitive wages and they’re moving to jobs that pay more.”
Many other jobs also bring less hassle, Longenbohn noted, and less interaction with the public at a time when nerves are frayed more than usual.
Johnson, RTD’s CEO, expressed hope in an interview that the next contract with the ATU local, which is under negotiation now, would provide a big assist for both recruitment and retention. The current contract expires at the end of February.
She tabbed pay rates and “quality of life issues,” which include split-shift scheduling, as pain points she agrees need to be addressed. Current starting pay is $20.58 for bus and train operators, who must complete several weeks of training and earn a commercial driver’s license, and $26.08 for mechanics.
“I need to have a workforce that feel as if they’re supported,” Johnson said.
For now, workers are stretched thin — but on their own terms. RTD still relies heavily on voluntary overtime, offering extra incentives. It paid out $6.1 million last year through October, according to records requested by The Post. At the height of mandating, in 2019, RTD paid $13 million in overtime.
Private providers that operate 45% of RTD’s fixed bus routes on contract do not disclose their vacancies, while Denver Transit Operators, which runs the A, B and G commuter rail lines, says its operator ranks are fully staffed. But the bus contractors, at least, have filled gaps using voluntary overtime and occasionally mandated extra shifts, RTD says in its reports.
First Transit, the largest bus contractor, advertises a $5,000 hiring bonus on its job listings in Denver for operator jobs that pay $20.66 an hour, slightly higher than RTD.
New bus drivers — one returning — begin jobs
Count Daizsa Jones, 27, among those hoping the new RTD contract brings a pay increase, arguing its starting salary for operators doesn’t go far enough in Denver.
The daughter of a longtime RTD dispatcher, she worked for about two years as a bus driver on Route 15 along East Colfax Avenue. But she said she left in 2019, finding other work as a driver that was lower-stress for the mother of a toddler. She also was burned out from RTD’s mandated extra shifts, she said, combined with verbal abuse from riders and other stresses of the job.
Jones returned to RTD recently, finishing her training in December. She said she was excited to return and realized she’d missed her “second family” among RTD drivers.
“You know, a lot of drivers, we go through a lot down there — you know, from customers arguing, to sometimes being assaulted,” Jones said. “So I was just sensing a personality in myself where I felt like I was just angry all the time. And I just needed that two-year break to really blossom into the person I am now.”
Joining Jones from the same trainee class on the “extra board” of fill-in drivers is Bernadette Wallace, 43, who said she applied to RTD after working for more than three years as a trucker. She settled in Northglenn, where her sister lives.
“Apparently, I drive a bus like I drive a truck, everybody agrees — even down to how I hold the steering wheel” and make extra-wide turns, Wallace said.
She expressed hope for the job and said she planned to stay for at least five years. She predicted driving a bus would play to her strong suits.
“One, I’m going to get to actually learn all the roads and know where things are — I’m looking forward to that,” Wallace said. “For the most part — I mean, I think I’ll be good at the job. I’ve been doing customer service jobs since I was 13. … I’ve been doing the driving jobs for years and I love to drive. So it’s just trying to mix the two in one place.”
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