TriMet grapples with driver shortage as service cuts continue

Posted by on May 13th, 2022 at 1:22 pm

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Like many industries right now, transit agencies are facing a serious worker shortage. This includes Portland’s regional transit provider, TriMet, which is trying to recover from the pandemic’s impact on ridership – but a lack of operators is making that very difficult.

This deficiency has become especially apparent as ridership has ticks upward as routines return post-Covid lockdowns. In January, the agency began reducing service by about 9% due to “the most significant operator shortfall in agency history.” This brought service levels back to what they were in April 2020 – when unemployment levels where the highest they’d been since the Great Depression.

Considering a lot more people need to get to work now, this is alarming.

“We apologize to our riders as we would much rather be expanding service, but by taking this step we increase the schedule reliability so riders experience less canceled or late buses,” TriMet said about this initial cutback.

It’s not just the bus service that’s suffering: lately, MAX train service has begun to be spotty as well. (Take a look at the TriMet service alerts Twitter page to see post after post about cancelled MAX trains due to operator shortages.)

In response, the agency appears to have shortened the time frame it takes to move from driving a bus to operating the MAX: new employees must now work as bus drivers for only six months before they’re allowed to operate the light rail. In 2019, TriMet said it took “about a year” to move from bus driver to MAX operator.

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Last fall, the agency increased pay by $4 to a starting rate of $21.36 per hour on top of a $2500 signing bonus incentive.

But this initial pay increase wasn’t enough to get more drivers on board, so late last month, they announced another $4 starting pay raise and increased the signing bonus incentive to $7,500.

Since this most recent announcement, TriMet has run a recruiting blitz. Between the end of April and now, the agency says they’ve received more than 300 applications.

“We hate to see this as much as you hate not seeing your bus or train arrive.”
— TriMet

The desperation TriMet feels was evident from a tweet posted Thursday apologizing for these cutbacks and asking people to help promote the job opportunities.

“We hate to see this as much as you hate not seeing your bus or train arrive. We’re working hard to restore the service you need and deserve, but really need your help. Please spread the word,” the tweet says.

In response, some people called on TriMet to increase the starting wages further.

“[The starting rate of $25.24] is why y’all have a driver shortage. This is abysmal pay for a job as demanding as being a bus driver in a city like this. Y’all are a publicly funded company, you can do better than this,” one responder on Twitter said.

The minimum wage in the Portland area is currently $14 an hour, which will go up to $14.75 at the beginning of July. However, due to the mass employee shortage, workers have been able to negotiate higher rates across the job spectrum, so simply comparing their rate to minimum wage may not be enough anymore.

So, why is it so hard to keep TriMet operators on board? An Oregonian article quoted Bill Bradley, who’s on the executive board for the union that represents about 2,700 TriMet workers. He said the pandemic and civil unrest have contributed to burnout.

Attacks on bus drivers have risen during the pandemic, which TriMet has worked to address in part by issuing lifelong bans against people who spit at bus drivers (along with other forms of assault that were previously included in the ban).

On May 17, TriMet is hosting a hiring event at the Portland Downtown/Convention Center Courtyard by Marriott from 10 am to 3 pm, where people can get conditional offers on the spot. Full offers require passing a drug test, but you don’t need a commercial driver’s license to apply.

Do it! This is an emergency! Portland needs you!

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PTBChris IOpus the PoetBus Driver Jr.AndyK Recent comment authors
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Tina Ricks (Guest Author)
Guest
Tina In The Burbs

Keep in mind that TriMet’s supposed $7500 hiring bonus is actually paid out over 36 months. Really, it’s a starting raise that will disappear in 3 years. Not a great incentive. Long-haul trucking has massive turnover because the job and working conditions stink, but all those drivers have CDLs and a lot of relevant skills. Maybe TriMet needs to talk to some unhappy long-haul drivers, find out what would entice them to drive a city bus instead, and offer that.

Tina Ricks (Guest Author)
Guest
Tina In The Burbs

A relative is an unhappy long-haul driver, tired of living in a truck cab, never any time at home (company hasn’t sent him home since February), getting paid by the mile instead of by the hour, but with a big debt to a national trucking company to pay for his training. He’s not unique. TriMet needs to talk to drivers like him and find out what they could do to pave the way. He wants to live in an apartment, sleep in a real bed, and see his friends and family sometimes.

Jason McHuff
Guest

Make the agency functional. Ask why existing employees are leaving faster than new ones can be hired (listen to what they have to go through on a daily basis and it’s evident).

Also, it should be noted that after 3 years, there are guaranteed wage increases (both step and rate increases) that will have kicked in.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

Attacks on bus drivers have risen during the pandemic, which TriMet has worked to address in part by issuing lifelong bans against people who spit at bus drivers (along with other forms of assault that were previously included in the ban).

How is the issuing of lifelong bans working when TriMet doesn’t do any enforcement?

With all the wackos out there, I sure wouldn’t want a public-facing job.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

In other countries the driver is protected from the riders. Not so in America. Cdl driver here. No way, no thanks.

Former Bike Rider
Guest
Former Bike Rider

Trimet is not safe. Cars are safer.

EP
Guest
EP

I think our bus fleet sadly needs a MAX-like redesign for the current transit world. Put the driver up front, in his own secure compartment, people enter/exit behind that. Maybe one compartment half of the bus is free, the other half requires a fare/keycard for access? The separate “regular” and more expensive “business” commuter trains have been successful, maybe that separation is what it’ll take to get the average commuter out of their car and into the bus, or onto the MAX?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Unfortunately, I think we’re at the point where we need driver enclosures in this city. They are common in other large US cities, and around the world.

https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/barriers-to-protect-bus-drivers-being-tested-in-victoria-4618468

Matt
Guest
Matt

Nobody feels safe on Trimet. Who could blame people not wanting to drive for them? My partner and I have multiple encounters either on the bus, MAX, or a platform where we were harassed or intimidated.

Shame
Guest
Shame

Trimet is an example of everything bad about Portland today: bad management, virtue signaling, dirty and out of control. Also like portland, it was once a shining example of liberal high-achievement and model for other cities.

Now no one wants to work for them and be abused by the public and pander to “honored citizens” who can get you fired just for looking at them wrong. Management is detached from reality and issues directives cooked up by risk management groupthink. Lead by a board that is naive, unaccountable and hand picked not for their skills and expertise but identity politics.

If I were in charge, I would make the Executive team and board ride the system independently at least once a week (preferably outside of commutes) as a condition of employment. Anyone doing that would clearly see how deep the problem of disorder and crime really is and begin to take immediate action.

bbq
Guest
bbq

Bigtime FWIW: Having worked in Trimet’s maintenance department for a period of 9 months during a union contract negotiation period, I can see why the company is having a hard time with long term retention. Lots of personal employee sacrifice to bid into a union system with significant long-term union members (25-30+ yrs) taking the best/most convenient (read: easiest) roles they chose. With closure of mechanic apprenticeship programs, the only path from cleaning buses/maxes on a night shift was to go drive routes. All maintenance staff were trained to drive the buses and required a valid CDL B license. Maintanence was hired to start @ ~$18/hr, and I only ever drove a bus with other trimet employees inside (if ever).

At the time I left, in Fall of 2019, some small percentage of buses had plexi-glass doors installed ( albeit I was assigned to the Merlo Garage which mainly served West Portland routes). These were hefty clear doors with some adjustment and a significant latch mechanism. These were not sealed units to say the least.

Mark
Guest
Mark

In other news, how many management, line and executive employees ride the bus to work or for leisure?

AndyK
Subscriber

I can’t think of a more vulnerable service worker job. Thank you to all who continue to drive – you are truly amazing, and the BEST drivers. I’ve only had one close call on a bike with a TriMet bus in 14 years.

PTB
Guest
PTB

Starting pay of 25.24 is “abysmal”? That seems like a very solid starting hourly to me.

Bus Driver Jr.
Guest
Bus Driver Jr.

Solid like a bowel movement. Go for it, we’re hiring. Look forward to seeing you in the bullpen complains about the job

PTB
Guest
PTB

All I’m trying to say is for a job that requires no previous experience or higher ed. degree, has full benefits, a pension/retirement thing, and starts at 25 an hour, that doesn’t sound abysmal. I can’t speak about how pleasant the public is or isn’t. People can be assholes, I’ve had plenty of public facing jobs in my life and have stories. Lousy customers are not unique to public transit.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Being a bus driver is a very difficult, and sometimes dangerous job. Driving all day is already stressful, especially a 11ft wide, 40ft long brick in a city that loves to build streets with 10.5ft lanes. Angry, selfish car drivers, loaded pedestrians, etc. Then you have the problems with the people on the inside of the bus… there is a reason that $25 starting isn’t even cutting it.

PTB
Guest
PTB

Wild. Ok, gonna have to agree to disagree I guess! I still contend that a *starting* hourly for a no experience needed gig is pretty ok. That’s over 50k before taxes. Amazing? Nah, but not bad either. OPB has an article about the lack of Forest Service firefighters; they start at 15 an hour (and that’s just one of many equally stressful, equally/more dangerous jobs you can go get right now that pay for shit). That “isn’t even cutting it”. That’s “solid like a bowel movement”.

Opus the Poet
Guest

It’s a widespread problem. I had to give up riding the bus because I never know if there’s going to be a driver for all the buses I need to take to get somewhere. Last time I tried, I never got to my haircut because the barber shop closed before I even left the transit center on the second half of my ride out, my transfer didn’t show up until an hour after the shop closed, and 3 hours after I left the house to catch the first bus. If everything had gone to the published schedule I would have been there an hour and a half before closing.