Driver shortage requires Lawrence bus drivers to work mandatory overtime

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Jan. 18, 2016, a Lawrence Transit System bus stops just south of Seventh and Vermont streets.

Because of a staff shortage, city bus drivers have spent weeks putting in mandatory overtime behind the wheel.

Local union leader Justin Priest, who is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1754, said drivers have had to work a mandatory extra shift for more than a month, typically driving 48 hours per week. Priest said that he was not sure when drivers would be able to resume their normal schedules and that morale among drivers was low.

“The job is really not physical, but it’s mental,” Priest said. “As a driver we have to really pay attention to a lot of stuff, and mental fatigue can be worse than just physical, and we do see it, and of course that hurts morale.”

Priest said that the mandatory overtime has been in line with the union’s contract and federal regulations that don’t allow drivers to drive more than 10 hours per day. Priest said the union and First Transit, the bus operator, shared the goal of wanting to hire more drivers. However, Priest said that even with recent pay increases it had been hard to get enough quality candidates.

“Of course we don’t want to just put bodies in the seat,” Priest said. “We want people that are willing to drive and to try to make this into a career.”

The City of Lawrence and the University of Kansas coordinate their bus service and decided last year to hire a different company to operate their services. The City Commission voted in November 2018 to hire First Transit, which replaced longtime contractor MV Transportation on Jan. 1.

As the Journal-World reported at the time, the First Transit contract costs about $320,000 more on average per year than the one offered by MV Transportation, but city bus technology and driver pay were to improve under First Transit. First Transit job advertisements currently indicate a starting wage of $15 per hour, while MV Transportation’s starting wage was about $12 per hour for 2018.

Amid renegotiation of their contract, members of the local transit union were prepared to strike, but ultimately a contract was agreed to. Priest said though it did take a few months for the union and First Transit to negotiate a new contract, the transition went smoothly as far as service went. He said the main issue has been the staff shortage.

First Transit cited a couple of reasons for the shortage and mandatory overtime. In a statement provided to the Journal-World by First Transit spokesman Jay Brock, the company cited Lawrence’s unemployment rate of only 3% and national trends.

“The transit driver shortage is a nationwide issue, it extends well beyond Kansas,” the statement reads. “There is a direct correlation between the unemployment rate and the ability for companies like us to recruit drivers.”

The statement goes on to say that First Transit is always actively seeking drivers to create an ongoing pipeline of applicants. It noted the $3 per hour increase to the starting wage since it took over the service at the beginning of the year and that First Transit staff also receive paid vacation, paid holidays, health insurance and a 401(k) plan. The statement said service levels for passengers have not been affected by the staffing shortage.

“We are dedicated to deliver service to the community of Lawrence and KU on Wheels,” the statement reads. “We take great pride in the service our drivers and staff provide to the community.”

First Transit did not immediately respond to follow-up questions Friday, including how many days and hours per week most drivers have been required to drive and how many openings for drivers the company currently has.

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