The recruiting line: Transit agencies on Western Slope struggle to hire seasonal bus drivers
December 28, 2014
Western Slope solutions
Click here to see how other Western Slope transit organizations are dealing with the driver shortage.
Steamboat Springs — Maybelle Chotvacs is having a hard time adapting to life without her favorite bus line.
Sitting at her home last week, the 85-year-old Old Town resident said she is missing opportunities to play violin with her friends in Craig because the city of Steamboat Springs cut the Yellow Line.
She doesn't want to have to walk or drive on slick roads to a regional bus stop the city's bus used to take her to.
"I think they've made it as inconvenient as they could make it," Chotvacs said about the city's recent decision to pare down its winter daytime bus schedule and cut the line that used to stop near the home she has lived in for 60 years. "They've still got the nicest drivers and staff. They are so good and polite. And the buses are good.
"It's just a shame they did it this way," Chotvacs continued. "Without the Yellow Line, places like Old Town, Fairview and Howelsen Hill are cut off."
Chotvacs' frustration is due in part to the recent return of a bus driver shortage in resort communities throughout the Western Slope.
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But Steamboat's response to the shortage has been especially impactful this year.
Anticipating that it would struggle to hire enough seasonal bus drivers to run the service it used to provide and that Chotvacs so appreciated, the city made the decision to cut its bus service.
The city expects to save more than $140,000 by running the new routes that require fewer drivers, and less potential for overtime costs.
Service was pared down in some parts of the city and enhanced in others.
Lines like the on-call Yellow Line were discontinued because they weren't used as much as other routes.
"There are a lot of reasons we are having trouble attracting seasonal transit bus drivers right now, marijuana being one of them, so it's an issue, and we're going to have to figure out how to work through it the best we can," City Manager Deb Hinsvark recently told the Steamboat Springs City Council.
Across the Western Slope this year, transit agencies like Steamboat Springs Transit are being forced to make some tough choices as bus driver recruiting gets harder and harder.
Chotvacs isn't a fan of the decision the city of Steamboat made.
As Chotvacs continues to press the city and the council to reconsider the cuts, many transit managers are trying to avoid Steamboat's fate and looking for more drivers like Darrin Bevel.
Darrin Bevel's friends call him a "bus geek" and not just because he has spent more than 27,000 hours behind the wheel of a Steamboat Springs Transit bus since 2002.
Outside of those three years worth of windshield time, Bevel sometimes watches YouTube videos of car, truck and bus crashes.
It may seem like an odd or grotesque hobby, but it serves a valuable purpose.
Like a football quarterback who watches re-plays of his mistakes to improve his game, Bevel studies other drivers' crash footage so he can avoid an accident when he drives the bus.
"This is the kind of stuff I need to keep in the back of my mind, because if I can keep it in the back of my mind, it can help me be a safer driver and provide a safer, more reliable ride for my passengers," Bevel said last week as he stood next to the large regional bus he drives between Steamboat Springs and Craig. "I'm out there, I'm entrusted with these 57 people at a time. It's always in the back of my mind that I've got other people's lives in my hands and it's my fault if something happens."
Steamboat Springs Transit and other bus services operating in Western Slope communities would love to hire more drivers like Bevel to fill out their rosters of winter drivers and safely carry thousands of tourists and residents to and from the ski slopes and their places of work.
Bevel is dependable.
He has an impeccable safety record, loves his job and returns to the driver's seat again and again.
But as the economy recovers, efforts to recruit drivers like Bevel are getting tougher.
The oil and gas industry is offering drivers wages that cities aren't competing with, and housing in resort communities is getting tighter.
Federal mandates for marijuana testing also are creating roadblocks for some prospective drivers who want to take advantage of the recent legalization of marijuana in the state.
Because of all of these factors, seasonal help is getting harder and harder to find, leaving resort communities like Steamboat with some tough choices they haven't had to face since the start of the economic recession.
Today, several bus services are increasing their pay rates and benefits to entice drivers and get an edge over other employers and ski towns.
Others like Steamboat and Breckenridge are cutting back some of the service because of the recruiting challenges.
As thousands of skiers and vacationers are starting to arrive in Colorado's resort communities, the pressure is on.
The concern in Kelley Collier's voice is immediately apparent.
"We are struggling," the director of Eagle County's ECO Transit system said in mid-December when she was asked how the service was doing in its efforts to recruit seasonal bus drivers.
With winter bus service revving up there, ECO Transit was short six out of 12 seasonal drivers.
A struggle to find housing in November led to a loss of four potential drivers, Collier said.
Overtime costs are mounting, and the need for expanded bus service in February for the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships looms.
"We're currently 240 driver hours short per week," Collier said. "We're at the point right now where we're at the beginning of the season; we don't want to burn everybody out."
Sensing the recruiting would be more difficult this season because of skilled laborers returning to other jobs in a recovering economy, ECO Transit reinstated a $250 recruitment bonus and a $500 end-of-season bonus for drivers for the first time in six years.
It also worked with the Eagle County Housing Department to secure housing after the previous struggle deterred some potential employees.
Calls to transit managers in five other resort communities in Colorado revealed almost all of them are having a harder time finding drivers this season than in the past.
The managers blame the challenges on such things as tighter housing markets, higher paying jobs in the construction industry and a national shortage of drivers who hold commercial licenses.
"In talking to a national (commercial driver's license) temp agency, apparently our profession is more than 250,000 operators short," said Maribeth Lewis-Baker, the manager of Breckenridge's Free Ride bus system. "It's a systemic problem for the entire country, not isolated to our region or the resorts."
In Breckenridge, one of the lines wasn't able to run this season because of a shortage of drivers.
"Normally, we would be fully staffed by mid-October," Lewis-Baker said. "It's been very, very difficult this year. We've had to adapt."
In Summit County and the Roaring Fork Valley, pay raises recently were implemented to try and preempt recruiting challenges.
In Steamboat Springs, the city took another route.
The anticipation of bus driver recruiting challenges this year led the city of Steamboat to enact the most significant cuts and changes to the city's bus service in several years.
It was a much different response than the one the city took seven years ago to address the same problem.
From 2006 to 2008, the city spent tens of thousands of dollars to recruit drivers from places as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
The flags from the international drivers still almost completely cover the walls of Steamboat Springs Transit's training room.
This winter, by enacting longer bus wait times on the west end of town, introducing transfers on some routes and consolidating some bus stops, the city anticipates saving more than $100,000 in personnel and operating costs to run the service.
Some City Council members initially were concerned about how the changes would affect the system, but they ultimately endorsed the changes and decided to see how the cost-saving measures would perform this winter.
Steamboat Springs Transit Manager Jonathan Flint said the service now is being run mostly with by the city's 31 full-time and returning seasonal drivers, instead of the 45 drivers who ran it last year.
This means the city is experiencing less pressure to hire, train and retain about a dozen or so seasonal drivers.
Reaction to the pared down service has been mixed.
Some riders have said they understand why the cuts were made and haven't seen much of an impact, while others said it has created safety issues and inconvenienced local workers who depend on the transit system.
Talking about the changes recently in his office that is lined with miniature bus models and binders and binders full of transit data, Flint already was thinking ahead to next season.
He hopes a potential partnership with a transit agency in his old stomping grounds in Alaska can help Steamboat solve some of its recruiting obstacles in the future.
Trading with Alaska
Spend your summers in Alaska, and your winters in Steamboat Springs.
Flint hopes it can be a winning recruiting pitch.
The idea is to recruit drivers who spend their summers working in places like Denali for Holland America-Princess, a major tour bus and cruise line company, to spend their winters in Steamboat, and vice versa.
"What works out nice is they do the same thing we do," Flint said about the drivers in Alaska. "They're dealing with international guests from all over the world in a customer service job. We like getting people from these national parks and places because they know what they're getting into when they get here."
The recruiting swap also makes sense because transit agencies in Alaska experience their driver shortages in the summer, the opposite season that agencies here do.
Steve Stone, transportation manager for Holland America-Princess' Denali Transportation Division, will be in Colorado early next year to talk to transit managers in Colorado ski towns about recruiting relationships.
Stone will be traveling the country looking for experienced bus drivers to come up to Alaska.
"We wanted to reduce the training program for our company, which means not having brand new drivers," Stone said. "We wanted to find the companies that already have CDL drivers who aren't driving year round. That narrowed it down to resorts in Florida and Colorado and Utah."
Flint said talks of such a recruiting partnership date back years, but the issue faded in 2008 after the economy started to take a dive.
"The economy dropped, and we no longer had an issue finding drivers, so it got put on the back burner," Flint said. "But now that the economy is recovering to the point where resort industries are having trouble recruiting enough drivers, this has come back up as an issue."
Marijuana a factor
Ann Rajewski has a long list of reasons bus service's like Steamboat Springs are having a tough time finding drivers close to home this season.
As the executive director of the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies, or CASTA, she regularly hears the heads of bus services in resort communities talking about the challenges.
They range from licensing variations to the recovering economy to problems posed by random marijuana testing.
"There's no test now to determine when you smoked or ingested marijuana," Rajewski said. "So the problem is even if you smoked marijuana two weeks ago, and you have the random drug test, you would fail it. That's a rub for us."
While marijuana isn't necessarily a factor for all drivers seeking employment, wages certainly are.
And city bus services have a disadvantage in that arena.
With the oil and gas industry booming in the state, Rajewski said drivers with CDLs are getting "sucked away" from city buses because of higher paying jobs. Construction and other private sector jobs also compete.
Rajewski said it can be hard to live in a resort community on a bus driver's salary.
"It's a job that pays pretty well, but it's not a great paying job," Rajewski said about city bus drivers. "It can be hard for people to live in a resort area with that salary. One of the obvious ways (to improve recruiting) is to increase pay scales, but that's hard when you're getting the funding from local sources."
In Steamboat, drivers are paid $10.17 per hour while they are training, and the pay increases to $15.78 per hour when they pass the training.
Drivers who stay for the season earn a bonus.
Currently, the city of Steamboat is commissioning a comprehensive study of its pay scale and benefits package citywide.
In addition to competing pay for drivers, there also are licensing challenges.
Rajewski said drivers from some states can lose endorsements on their commercial licenses when they move to Colorado and get this state's version.
"If you have a hazmat endorsement on your CDL, it probably cost you time and money to get it," she said. "We want to figure out a way to maintain the safety and integrity that is expected from our CDL drivers without having a cost (to the licensing process) that would prevent them from coming here and driving."
Meanwhile, the residents who are upset by the outcome of Steamboat's driver recruiting challenges have some of their own ideas for how to improve the situation.
Back at her home in Old Town, Maybelle Chotvacs keeps gushing about Steamboat's transit system and laments the cuts.
"Some days, I'd use it five times a day," she said. "Most of the time, I leave the car in the driveway, and I take the bus."
She said she's "making waves" about the bus system because she fears the recent changes will lead to a loss of ridership.
"I hate to complain but I think they've done the locals a little bit dirty by cutting us out of the system," she said.
At the very least, Chotvacs will have an opportunity to speak her mind about the changes when the city hosts an open house about the bus service after the winter season to discuss how the changes went.
Last week, she said she thinks drivers should get a raise and the city should invest more in its transportation system, not less.
The city and City Council are poised to decide the future of the schedule based on the impacts and reaction to the changes that were made this season.
If the driver shortage continues, riders in Steamboat and beyond could be affected.
Transit services can only run the number of buses they have the drivers for, and drivers by law can only drive a certain amount of hours per week.
Flint said the process of hiring new drivers and getting them ready to hit the road can take more than two months.
According to CASTA, agencies spend on average between 80 to 120 hours with an individual to get them trained and prepared before they send a driver out with passengers.
"If you're not able to get those additional drivers, you have to make hard choices," Rajewski said.
Western Slope solutions
Click here to see how other Western Slope transit organizations are dealing with the driver shortage.