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TriMet grapples with driver shortage as service cuts continue


(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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