Michigan struggles to fill public bus driver positions

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Public transportation is suffering from a lack of drivers in communities across Michigan. 

The shortage is a statewide problem, said Clark Harder, the executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, a nonprofit representing public transit systems.

Some transit agencies have more serious shortages than others, but Michigan bus systems as a whole are struggling, Harder said.

“The largest shortages tend to be with the largest agencies. DDOT in Detroit, SMART in Southeast Michigan,” Harder said. “It’s less critical for most of the other urban agencies. Those would be Flint, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing –  but they’ve still dealing with the issue too.”

Harder said the COVID 19 pandemic adversely impacted jobs transit. Strict safety standards, fear of getting infected and lack of riders contributed to the decreased number of bus drivers. 

“Driver positions are filled mostly by semi-retired people or retirees who still are physically able and want to remain active. Because of the fear over COVID, we lost a lot of people,” he said.

Pay is also a big cause of shortages. In a survey by the association, 90% of 45 public transit agencies in Michigan, reported that they increased wages to attract more drivers. 

“Every agency in the state has increased wages in the last couple of years. They are looking at incentives for hiring because, in some cases, that helps to get people in the door,” Harder said.

Kalamazoo Metro Transit raised both part-time and full-time starting pay to $21.33 an hour. Shawn McBride, the executive director, said the increase brought in over 70 applicants. 

“We really focused again this fall on how to be more inventive in recruiting drivers, so  we had a hiring fair. he said.

McBride said KMetro is trying to get the message out that it’s a solid employer in Kalamazoo. “We’re working our way on hiring employees, and hopefully we will be fully finished shortly after the first quarter of next year.”

Although there are applicants, the hiring process is where the system loses prospective drivers, he said. 

“There’s pretty extensive physicals, there’s pre-employment, drug testing. We do additional testing for customer service before that. So, getting all these checkoffs means that we lose a lot of people in the process,” McBride said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation requires routine drug testing for transit system employees. A failing test includes illegal substances, as well as legal substances like marijuana and alcohol.

While drivers are allowed to use alcohol and legal marijuana, can be disciplinary action if such substances show up on the tests, Harder said.

The requirements are much more stringent for public transit than for other jobs, and Harder said that makes it difficult for agencies to attract drivers. 

“You have people applying for these positions, and those already in the positions who cannot continue to drive because they can’t pass the drug and alcohol test,” he said.

A number of transit associations are lobbying to ease the drug test requirements, according to Harder.

McBride said there’s always going to be a struggle to fill positions, especially as the older generations retire. 

“We want to be an option,” he said of public transit. “People choose how to get to work, to school, to medical appointments. We don’t want any barriers for anyone to get to any of those places.” 

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