Bus drivers pressed as services expand

To cope with demand, workers spend more time behind the wheel

February 15, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

After driving a city bus over 105 miles of city streets for nearly eight hours one day last week, Amelia Wallace geared up for another shift.

Instead of going home, relaxing and spending time with her family, the 19-year veteran with the Annapolis Department of Transportation took the wheel for another six hours. This is life as usual for many of the department's 16 full-time experienced drivers and two entry-level drivers.

"It does cut down on family time," said Wallace, who lives with her two sons in Harford County, more than an hour's commute away. "That's the main drawback."

Her family is so used to her working overtime, Wallace said, that she calls her sons when she'll be home on time.

"My family expects me to be working late," she said.

To help ease the burden on employees like Wallace, the city's transportation department has begun a recruitment campaign for drivers. For the past three months, recruiters have posted signs, made presentations at meetings and used word of mouth in their efforts to fill the department's six vacancies for beginning drivers.

"You name it, we've tried it," said Danielle Sydne Matland, director of the transportation department.

The need for more drivers is the result of a significant jump in the number of riders. In the past four years, ridership has increased by more than 100,000 annually and drivers are expected to carry more than 1 million passengers this year.

The increase -- sparked by improved promotion, added routes and a lack of parking in Annapolis -- has been handled by almost the same corps of drivers, Matland said.

"Everyone ends up doing overtime," Matland said. "Virtually every driver is working a part-time job here as well as a full-time job.

In fiscal year 1999, Matland said, department employees earned 6,465 hours of overtime. About one third of that was providing transit services on holidays.

Wallace, who was recently named city employee of the year, said she averages about 25 hours of overtime each week. She's scheduled to work Monday through Friday, but sometimes picks up a Saturday shift, which tends to go longer than planned.

"There's been times when I got overtime on overtime," she said.

Matland said municipalities all over the country are facing driver shortages, which she attributes to competition for drivers from the private business sector and stricter testing of drivers.

"There's a huge demand for people with a good driving record and commercial driver's license," Matland said.

Annapolis, she said, hasn't been able to compete with private companies when it came to hiring drivers, but the city is in the process of increasing its starting salary. "We can be competitive locally," she said.

Department technician Sonny Hinton said the starting salary for a city bus driver is $7.50 an hour, with an increase to $8.80 after three months. The salary includes a benefits package, stability and long-term employment, he said.

"Changes are being made," Hinton said. "We'd like to see it go to at least $9 an hour."

To encourage people who have an interest but no experience to apply, Hinton is trying to start a program for trainees to get commercial driver's licenses. The department is targeting Annapolis residents with a Maryland driver's license and a clean driving record.

Hinton said he has posted notices at apartment complexes and advertised openings. The overtime, though welcome extra income, he said, is starting to take its toll on the drivers.

"We're reaching the point where we need to be aggressive," Hinton said. "We even stop individuals on the street."

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