Three members of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1287 stand in front of their union flag, raising their fists.
Reggie Hall, LaVale Smith and Will Howard are all members of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1287 as well as longtime drivers for the KCATA. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Will Howard knows exactly why bus drivers in Kansas City are stepping away from the steering wheel. 

“We just had an 18-year veteran say they can’t do it anymore,” said Howard, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287, the operator union representing bus drivers in Kansas City. “She’s working at the water department now.”

Since the pandemic, driving a bus has become increasingly stressful, Howard said. Drivers are expected to maintain order, deal with short tempers and eject passengers who seek to use the vehicles as shelter.

“All these things combined especially with us not making enough money was enough for operators to lose love for the job,” Howard said. 

A portrait of Will Howard, the president of the operator union
Will Howard, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287, negotiated with KCATA officials on their new terms. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

It’s not just a Kansas City problem. Public transportation is one of many industries faced with workforce declines as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and early retirements. 

Over the last few months, the Kansas City Area Transit Authority has negotiated a new union contract with its drivers and maintenance crews and seen its hiring pick up. But drivers say more could be done to make them feel safe and valued.  Around the country, transit systems are successfully retaining operators by doing just that.

Higher wages, more hiring in Kansas City

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 96% of agencies surveyed in March reported workforce shortages, and 84% said the shortage is affecting their ability to provide service.

In part because of the driver shortage locally, riders of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority have been experiencing service delays, route stoppages and undependable schedules. All of those problems drive away passengers, as did the pandemic; about 3 million fewer riders boarded KCATA buses from 2019 to 2021, according to data from the agency.

“We went for about one year without being able to train new bus operators because the training of new bus operators cannot be done remotely. That requires hands-on training,” said Dick Jarrold, the KCATA’s interim deputy CEO. So we got behind because of the COVID pandemic itself.”

Based on research and surveys of transit leaders, APTA’s report on worker shortages recommends multiple steps that agencies can take to make the job more desirable, including improved schedules, ongoing training and safety precautions. Better pay and benefits are at the top of its list.

In Kansas City, the KCATA worked with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 to negotiate a new contract for drivers and maintenance crews. The starting pay was lifted to $23 an hour from an hourly starting wage of $17, which just met the living wage in Jackson County.

Operators of larger buses will make $32 an hour. 

“That puts us in a competitive recruiting posture with others that are recruiting people to jobs in busing, like school bus operators, for instance,” Jarrold said.

Through the new contract and intensified recruitment efforts, the KCATA has hired an additional 55 drivers, exceeding its goal of 45 more drivers by the end of this year. In order to retain employees and combat an increasing retirement rate, however, drivers say the transportation authority needs to prioritize their safety and well-being.

Retaining drivers through better opportunities in California

One program that has received a stamp of approval from the U.S. Department of Labor is Joint Workforce Investment, an apprenticeship and mentoring program in San Jose, California, that supports the long-term professional development, health and wellness of employees. 

Under the program, which the Valley Transportation Authority initiated with its local operator union, students enroll in an apprenticeship, during which they learn how to drive a bus and also are able to earn community college credit. 

“Each new bus driver is paired with a more veteran bus driver so that they have somebody to help them navigate the ropes of what is a very stressful job dealing with the public,” said Stacey Hendler Ross, the public information officer for the VTA. 

“Those two things, the apprenticeship and the mentorship, the objective is to really retain those drivers.”

The Joint Workforce Investment program also provides a career ladder, which offers the opportunity for drivers to move to higher paying managerial or clerical positions within the company. 

While the program has helped with retention, the VTA is still in need of about 50 more drivers. Similar to many other industries, the VTA simply doesn’t have enough people to hire. 

“We’re not getting the number of applicants we used to for our classes,” Hendler Ross said.  “New trainee classes averaged probably 15 to 20 each class whereas before COVID we had 30 to 35 per class.”

Mentors needed to combat the ‘silver tsunami’

San Jose’s mentorship program addresses a problem that drivers are seeing in Kansas City — a wave of retirements by older, experienced drivers. 

Even before the pandemic, many transit agencies prepared for a “silver tsunami,” according to a report by TransitCenter, a transportation research and advocacy group. The average transit operator is around 53 years old, 10 years older than the average American worker, the report states.  

A graph depicting the percentage of the workforce by age
The average transit operator is around 53 years old. (Source: The Transit Center)

“We saw a lot of people … who were hanging on, but with the COVID situation they took advantage of that to actually retire,” Jarrold at KCATA said.

Howard, the union leader, said departures of experienced drivers hit hard.

“This hurts you because you need vet operators to show others how the job is done and be a mentor,” he said.

LaVale Smith, a bus operator of 27 years, said the threat of exposure to COVID-19, in addition to the ever-present threat of violence or outbursts from passengers, influenced the more experienced drivers to leave.

“It’s to the point where if you’ve been here doing this as long as I have, but you don’t have anyone to come and help you in a situation, … do I continue to come back to work, or go ahead and go ahead and retire?” she said. 

A portrait of LaVale Smith, who is a member of the operator union
LaVale Smith has driven for the KCATA for almost 30 years. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

KCATA has added a senior operator rate to bump the wages of operators who have been on the job for 18 years or more. Smith sees it as a step in the right direction, but says other incentives such as child care services and higher pay for night workers would also increase employee retention. 

Technology, more security presence can bolster driver safety

In Kansas City, job safety remains a pressing issue. Nationwide data shows that assaults on operators increased fourfold from 2009 to 2020, according to TransitCenter. Verbal abuse and other aggressive encounters among bus operators and passengers are all too common. 

“People complain about it constantly. I haven’t driven the bus in two years since I was president, but people tell me it’s different than when I was driving,” Howard said.

Kansas City’s affordable housing shortage contributes to the friction. Many unhoused people board buses for shelter, and it is often left up to the drivers to instruct them to leave.

“They are frustrated and the only guarantee is the bus,” Howard said. “So they get on the bus, it’s cold or hot or whatever it is, but we’re not designed to do this. Operators ask them to step off the bus, sometimes an altercation or fight happens. This has killed the workforce.”

Although driver safety was not a talking point in the contract renegotiation, Howard would like to see the KCATA have its own transit security system for the buses.

The KCATA is in contract with Titan security and has 26 security officers available to respond to incidents, in addition to protective barriers for drivers and security footage, Jarrold said. The agency would like to increase the numbers of security officers, he said. 

But Howard said more off-site, third-party security wasn’t the answer.

“We have our own private security which is helpful, but when you’re attacked because you’re talking on your cellphone, it takes someone 30 minutes to get to you,” he said. 

Instead, drivers would like to see an increased presence of security or supervisors on the bus.

“I’m not saying be on every bus, but at least be on a bus. And you can get off one bus and go to another so the passengers know, I’m not gonna take chance of being violent on the bus because I know the supervisor or Titan is going to be on one of these buses and be in an area where if we do have to call you, it’s not going to take you forever to get there,” Smith said. 

In San Jose, the Valley Transportation Authority has turned to technology to assist with safety. Its app, VTAlerts, allows passengers to report any issues to 911 or directly to VTA transit security. 

“We’re trying to get our customers invested in helping to protect our employees as well,” said Hendler Ross. The VTA also includes warning labels on all its vehicles, informing passengers of the state law’s punishment for assault on a transit vehicle.

To improve morale, listen to the drivers

Seantee Rainey has been a driver for 15 years. She has witnessed an increase in violence and harassment from passengers over time. 

“This job is very mentally draining, and you just never know what you’re gonna roll up to with each bus stop,” she said.

The stress from the job often follows Rainey home. 

“There’s nights where I’ve had to tell my daughter when I get home to give me 30 minutes because you have so much on you,” she said. 

The Maryland Transit Administration’s In-Reach program has sought to improve morale among drivers by increasing their voice in how the agency is run.

Started in 2017 when the MTA launched BaltimoreLink, a complete overhaul and rebranding of the core transit system, the agency developed the In-Reach program to solicit operator feedback on proposed changes such as bus network redesigns, service changes, workforce development and other aspects of agency practice.

“As a result of the positive level of engagement and feedback loops created with this process, the In-Reach initiative was made a permanent component of MDOT MTA operations,” said Jerimiah Moerke, the director of media relations for the Maryland Transit Administration.

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.