Hiring bonuses, retention bonuses and a raise for new hires are part of the CTA’s plan to attract and retain bus and train operators and mechanics as the agency tries to extricate itself from a huge lack of staff.
As WTTW News previously reported, the agency’s reliance on overtime has increased as the COVID-19 pandemic and the so-called “Great Resignation” have upended CTA’s workforce. In 2021, dozens of bus and train operators were paid for average work weeks of 80 hours or more, with three operators being paid for average weeks of more than 100 hours.
In an effort to fill its staffing gap, the agency just announced that all new bus operators and mechanics will receive a $1,000 hiring bonus and be eligible for retention bonuses until the end. next year. Attrition rates for new hires are also on the rise. And the agency organizes job fairs throughout the year. But with hundreds of vacancies still open and major gaps in bus and train services, many CTA riders have expressed frustration.
“It felt like an hour as we waited for this Stony Island bus to arrive, and I was very heated about it,” Denise Simmons said on a recent Wednesday in Woodlawn.
His complaints about CTA delays were echoed by city passengers and city council members.
“Our constituents depend on the CTA like their lives depend on it,” Ald said. Jeanette Taylor said at a recent city council hearing on the CTA service. “There is a domino effect when the CTA is not at its best.”
During that hearing, CTA President Dorval Carter spoke in no uncertain terms about how understaffed the agency was.
“We have a lot of employees leaving. This massive resignation really started early this year,” Carter said. “We are struggling to hire new operators.”
Hundreds of operator openings
At present, CTA has 100-200 train operator positions and 600-700 bus driver positions.
“I have never experienced anything quite like the ever-changing and unprecedented challenges I face today,” Carter said.
The agency has also partnered with Olive-Harvey College to help potential new hires obtain their commercial learner’s permit and driver’s license. And they removed the requirement that bus operators start part-time first – instead they allow recruits to start working full-time.
“When I came in 1998, I came part-time,” said Keith Hill, who heads the union representing drivers. “For me, part-time was a difficult part of my life. … We’re currently working on a full-time workforce, and I think that would suit the average worker better.
Since 2015, this workforce has lost hundreds of bus and train operators. Hill says the CTA can go further in changing its hiring practices — for example, easing rules on people whose business licenses have been suspended for things other than a moving violation, such as missing child support payments. He also suggested creating an apprenticeship program for bus cleaners.
“Not everyone is college material. When you get to 21, maybe see if they want to drive a bus,” Hill said. “It will bring in more people and make the pot grow.”
Hill doesn’t just care about how to bring in more riders. He’s also worried about what people staying at work are facing right now.
“They don’t know if this person has been waiting for 20 or 30 minutes. When you see your bus driver, don’t attack him,” Hill said. “We are just here to simply do a job.”
Because driving a bus can be such a tough job, transit executives say current employees and potential candidates are looking elsewhere. Jobs like delivering packages for UPS or FedEx also require a commercial driver’s license, but don’t require the driver to interact with passengers.
“These jobs offer competitive pay rates and benefits equal to what transit does in many cases, maybe sometimes better without the rigidity,” said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
This group surveyed transit agencies across the country and found that 96% said they were experiencing a severe labor shortage.
“Of these, 84% said the shortage affected their ability to provide daily service,” Skoutelas said. “It both hampers the reliability of service and also hampers them on their way back up to claim ridership gains again.”
This shortage is not only caused by people being attracted to other jobs in transport.
“Agencies report that retirees make up about 24% of all departing workers,” Skoutelas said.
And replacing these workers is not always easy.
“There has surely been a decline in job quality over the years,” said Chris Van Eyken of the nonprofit group TransitCenter.
This organization has looked at the problem facing drivers in a report entitled “Bus operators in crisis”. Among the reasons people quit or avoid work – the rising cost of living, tensions between workers and management, increased assaults on drivers, and: “young operators take the worst routes to drive at the worst times”.
“They have the toughest jobs to do, even though they have the least experience and are the least prepared to deal with difficult situations,” Van Eyken said.
Van Eyken says it will take a holistic approach to attracting and retaining drivers – from onboarding workers to the decision-making process to providing better facilities for drivers to connecting workers with childcare and other services.
“I think making sure people can live a fuller life while becoming a bus operator is a huge factor here,” he said.
“It’s the workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic,” said Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs With Justice. “I’m sure the workers feel very stretched and stressed.”
Recruitment campaign continues
Hurley says it’s important that the CTA hires the staff it needs, both to reduce pressure on current workers and to provide the service passengers rely on. His group is working to organize CTA runners to advocate for the best possible service.
“Our priorities are accessibility, equity, affordability, safety and reliability,” Hurley said. “It has become clear that the number one priority right now has to be hiring more workers.”
As the CTA strives to do just that, it is also making adjustments to its hours to reflect the service it says it can actually provide.
“It all seems like service cuts and longer waits to me,” Hill said. “I hope not, because if not, the repercussions will be felt on my driver.”
“I’m not doing service cuts,” Carter said at the Chicago City Council hearing. “There’s nothing in my budget, there’s nothing in my plans that suggests anything around the reduction in service. In fact, I’m looking for ways to expand and improve the service.
But part of the reason the CTA can operate buses on trains at its current level of service is due to federal stimulus funding. That money is being used to make up for lost fare revenue because ridership hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
If the agency can’t hire staff, improve service and attract passengers before the money runs out in 2025, Northwestern University professor Andy Crosby said the CTA could face challenges. difficult choices.
“You might see service reductions, you might see rate increases. One of the things with fare increases, yes, we can increase the price we charge people, but that also tends to reduce ridership,” Crosby said. “We have seen this before. CTAs had previous budget crises…many (train) lines were running 24 hours a day. Now that’s not the case anymore. Could we see more of this in the future? We certainly have with other transit agencies.
As of last month, the CTA says it has hired 390 bus drivers this year, with a goal of 450 by the end of the year. The agency just held another job fair last Friday.
Note: This article will be updated with a video.
Contact Nick Blumberg: [email protected] | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg