City officials are negotiating with Detroit bus drivers for a wage increase to fix the chronic operator shortages causing service interruptions.
Department of Transportation Director Mikel Oglesby told BridgeDetroit that DDOT is short about 100 drivers and there’s funding available for raises and other incentives to recruit and retain drivers. Oglesby said starting conversations about boosting salaries for DDOT drivers, who are paid far less than the national average, is “the right thing to do.”
“It’s my opinion that it’s not a financial issue, it’s more of finding the right number,” Oglesby said. “The reason we don’t have the service we want is because we don’t have the operators we want. More importantly, the operators that we have we need to come to work.”
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Schetrone Collier, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents DDOT drivers, said the negotiations are just starting. Collier confirmed that the city is offering the possibility of raises, though he declined to provide specifics, and expressed concerns that there may be strings attached.
“It appears to me they are putting stuff on the table to remove things from our contract that we would not give up in past negotiations,” Collier said. “That’s a problem for us.”
DDOT bus drivers start at $15 per hour, which roughly equals an annual salary of $31,200. That’s far below the $22.21 average national hourly wage for bus drivers in urban transit systems, and under the median income for Detroit ($34,768) as reported by the census. Detroit drivers can earn a maximum of $21 per hour.
Drivers for SMART, a regional transit agency serving Southeast Michigan, start at $19 per hour. Collier, who has three decades of experience at DDOT, said the city should start with matching the starting salary of SMART operators.
“My entire time here as a member of this union as well as a worker for the city is (trying to convince DDOT) to pay me what that guy over there is getting,” Coller said. “We’re both ATU unions doing the same work. Explain to me the big disparity in pay.”
ATU members at DDOT are working under a contract that expires in 2025. SMART is in talks with its drivers for a new contract, Oglesby said. If SMART further raises wages, Collier said he expects the “floodgates will open,” sending more DDOT drivers to SMART.
“At the end of the day (DDOT) has a problem with attraction and retention,” Collier said. “If we come to the table and we’re not talking about being equal at minimum with SMART, what are we talking about? You will not be able to attract or retain people if you’re not willing to do that.”
Last year, the city created a retention incentive for DDOT drivers, offering up to $4,000 in annual bonus pay each year for drivers who work a minimum number of hours each quarter. DDOT also secured a deal with ATU in 2021 that raised starting pay from $12.99 and included 2.5% pay increases each year through 2025.
Collier said those moves have been helpful, but it’s not enough to prevent the loss of drivers. DDOT dropped 10 drivers in the last week, he said. Collier said there are 304 union members who are driving for DDOT, while the department is budgeted for 510 drivers. Collier said virtually all DDOT operators are members of the transit union, suggesting that the driver shortfall is even larger than what Oglesby referenced on Tuesday.
Advocates with Transportation Riders United and the Detroit People’s Platform argue SMART and DDOT drivers should earn $28 per hour to match the salary of the starting wage drivers in Ann Arbor make. Transit advocates urged the Detroit City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan to match the Ann Arbor rate in a Feb. 13 letter.
Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero asked Oglesby and Detroit’s Chief Financial Officer to create a cost benefit analysis for raising DDOT driver wages to $29 per hour.
Duggan plans to unveil his budget proposal for the 2023-24 fiscal year on Friday. City Council President Mary Sheffield encouraged transit activists to push for increased wages during City Council budget conversations which will kick off after Duggan’s proposal is released.
When asked how much the city will offer to increase wages and when a deal could be reached, Oglesby said that’s still being worked out.
“Honestly, it’s really difficult to say because a lot of folks will say ‘you should raise (wages) up to where Ann Arbor is,’ some may say ‘it needs to be where SMART is,’” Oglesby said.
Meanwhile, transit agencies across the country are citing labor shortages as a major obstacle to restoring bus service to pre-pandemic levels.
The American Public Transportation Association reported last October that 96% of the agencies it surveyed are understaffed, which is causing service interruptions for 84% of the agencies. TransitCenter, a New York-based nonprofit organization, found agencies are struggling to find younger workers to replace an incoming wave of retirees – particularly because operator pay hasn’t kept up with the cost of living in most U.S. cities.
The Federal Transportation Agency reported Detroit served 9.4 million passengers in 2022, a 58% decline from 2019. Detroit had 152 vehicles operating during peak service times last year, a steep drop from 243 vehicles operating during peak times between 2017 and 2019. The number of miles DDOT buses traveled also decreased by 25% over the last three years.
Renard Monczunski, a transit activist with the Detroit People’s Platform, said riders are experiencing unreliable bus schedules. He’s heard complaints of long waits and missed connections, sometimes Detroiters have to wait more than an hour for a bus to arrive.
“You can’t rely on this service to get you around the city unless you take two to three hours out of your day,” Monczunski said. “During non-peak hours, especially at night, good luck.”
Federal data hasn’t been released for 2023, but Oglesby said DDOT has been able to provide the same number of service miles it did last year despite having 100 fewer operators. Oglesby said that shows DDOT is becoming more efficient.
“If we’re able to add even just 50 out of the 100 (drivers) we need, the public will see a drastic change,” he added.
But Collier is adamant that Detroit won’t be able to add drivers without making drastic salary changes first.
“People here are just not getting what they should be getting from the administrators of this city,” Collier said.
What about the mechanics who have to buy tools and have a cdl were in the country do the bus drivers make more then the mechanics ?
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