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DDOT drivers could get a $1,000 bonus each quarter if they work enough hours under a proposal going to Detroit’s City Council. If approved, it would go into effect July 1.

City bus drivers could soon earn up to $4,000 in bonus pay each year – depending on how often they show up for work. 

The proposed incentive for Detroit Department of Transportation drivers was unveiled Monday by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the city’s bus union. 

Under the plan, which must gain Detroit City Council approval, drivers will be eligible for a $1,000 bonus each quarter if they are on the job for a minimum of 480 hours per quarter. 

Duggan said that the city’s bus service and driver absenteeism has been “a source of continuing aggravation to me” and transit workers nationally, he said, drivers have been reluctant to work amid the pandemic and, in Detroit, they have continuously argued that they aren’t paid fairly. 

“Every operator in this city will be able to give themselves a $4,000 raise by regularly showing up for work,” Duggan said during a Monday news conference. 

The incentive was crafted to retain front-line employees and address worker attendance issues, which have been prevalent within DDOT and other transit agencies. The bonus program is expected to cost the city up to $2 million and it would be funded through existing revenues.

Detroit’s administration has submitted a Memorandum of Understanding to the council to amend the collective bargaining agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 to allow for the quarterly bonuses. If approved, it would be effective for one year, beginning July 1. The bonus program will be evaluated going forward to determine whether it will be continued or modified, the mayor said. 

The bonus program comes after the city last spring approved a new contract for Detroit’s approximately 400 drivers. The agreement included the first raise in three years, bringing the minimum salary up to $15 per hour and providing for a $1,000 bonus. The four-year contract also gives drivers a 2.5% pay increase each year over the term of the contract.

DDOT drivers earn about $21.50 an hour while SMART drivers earn about $23 an hour, according to the bus union’s outgoing president, Glenn Tolbert, who serves through June. 

Duggan said Monday that with the raises approved last year bus operators now make between $32,000 to $46,000 per year. 

Last month, Tolbert told BridgeDetroit that he didn’t think retention bonuses would adequately address the long-term problems that DDOT’s drivers face. But he did think it could “stem the tide.” 

Bus union officials said DDOT needs at least another 90 drivers to provide the most optimal services.

Tolbert on Monday said the move will help bring more drivers onto the payroll. 

“If we can get more membership, we can get more drivers and we can keep the buses rolling,” Tolbert said. “My men and women have been out here … trying to do what they can with the (bus driver) numbers that we have and we’ll continue to do that. This only enhances that.”

Under the bonus proposal, If a DDOT driver falls below the minimum 480 hours required to be worked in a quarter or they miss three scheduled shifts, they won’t be eligible for the bonus in that quarter. But they can receive it in other quarters if they meet the guidelines then, officials noted. 

Executive Director of Transit Mikel Oglesby said he expects that the offering will enable the department to increase the frequency of buses. DDOT had formerly eliminated three routes and officials have since reinstated two of them. With the incentive, he said, they plan to boost frequency on several bus routes. 

Detroit’s council recently encouraged Duggan’s administration to direct more resources toward programs to support the city’s bus system.

In adopting its 2022-23 fiscal budget, the council said it wanted to use $16 million in federal  COVID-19 relief aid for two DDOT initiatives that advocates and the transit union have long demanded. 

The council’s April resolution recommended that $10 million be earmarked for a low-income bus fare program and $6 million more be used for one-time retention bonuses for DDOT bus drivers. 

The funding is part of an overall pot of more than $826 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars coming to Detroit. DDOT held public input sessions in the past couple of months to  discuss how it should spend $51 million allocated for the department. 

On Monday, Oglesby was joined by Steven Watson of the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, to address a City Council committee, noting the dollars are reserved for payroll and preventative maintenance costs to help stabilize DDOT service as Detroit recovers from the pandemic. 

Oglesby said that he and other department officials conducted community outreach talks about needs for city bus shelters, bus operator incentives, transit hubs and technology upgrades. 

The federal dollars, he said, are set up to be used primarily for capital improvements. But the department intends to seek out other funding sources for projects of interest to the public that the dollars won’t pay for. 

“During the conversations we allowed everybody to put any idea on the table and then we went back to try to see whether what they suggested was applicable with these funds,” he said. “And, further, we tabled them, and we’re looking for other funds and other grants to fulfill the need. 

“Instead of just shutting everybody up and saying, ‘OK, this is the only thing that we can do,’ what I decided to do is prioritize it so that the $51 million is no longer available and then go after other funds,” he continued.

Oglesby said a final list of priorities will be forthcoming. About 70% of the feedback gathered during the community conversations was about a low-income fare study. It will be included on DDOT’s list of priorities, he said, even though the federal funds might not be able to support it.

Renard Monczunski, a transit justice organizer for the Detroit People’s Platform’s Transit Justice Team, has fought for better, safer and more reliable service for riders in Detroit and low-income fare. Residents, he said during Monday’s news conference, are dealing with “infrequent and unreliable” routes. 

“This is the first crucial step to addressing that,” he said of the driver incentive. “If we don’t address compensating operators, we will have lower morale and the service will continue to decline.”

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