The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is enticing bus drivers to fill open shifts over the remainder of the summer by offering them bonuses.
Drivers are being offered $50 to take shifts that are between four and seven hours long and $100 to take shifts that are more than seven hours, according to CEO Dan Blankenship.
It will cost an estimated $40,000 in bonuses to fill the shifts through August, Blankenship said. There will be additional overtime pay necessary to fill the shifts. He said he approved the plan because he felt it was better than trying to hire and train additional drivers prior to the offseason or cut service.
RFTA found itself short of drivers because of heavier-than-usual attrition this summer and a growth spurt. This is the first summer that the bus agency has operated its expanded service, known as bus rapid transit. Buses are running more frequently than ever before between Aspen and Glenwood Springs and points between.
Riders have responded in a big way. RFTA’s ridership is up 34 percent for the year through June. RFTA is matching the record ridership pace of 2008.
“There’s been so much going on at RFTA — so many moving parts,” Blankenship said. “The entire system is kind of rocking and rolling.”
The expanded service was started in September, but it was hard to anticipate how many drivers would be needed for summer service.
RFTA had 160 drivers last winter, but the demands aren’t the same for winters and summers. The agency started this summer with 142 full-time drivers, but attrition knocked the number down to 124 active drivers, according to longtime co-director of operations John Hocker.
RFTA had about 10 drivers quit and another one was fired, Blankenship said. There also are an “unprecedented” number of drivers on leave for medical reasons, he said.
RFTA learned it needed between 150 and 152 full-time drivers to adequately fill the summer schedule. Hocker and his staff realized by mid-July they would have trouble filling all shifts for the remainder of the summer without taking special action. Relying on the appeal of overtime pay to fill the open shifts wasn’t enough, Blankenship said. Many of the open shifts are on weekends and at night — shifts that veteran drivers are reluctant to take. So the executive staff came up with the idea of bonuses to sweeten the pot and fatten wallets. The $50 and $100 bonuses were offered starting July 17.
“We now have a line out the door,” Blankenship said. It no longer appears there will be a problem filling the shifts, he said.
In many cases, drivers also will get overtime because they are already working 40 hours per week. Overtime pay is time and a half. In other cases, a smaller pool of part-time drivers is getting closer to full-time hours.
The extra work is voluntary, Blankenship stressed, and no drivers will exceed the federal limit of 70 hours in any eight-day period.
No estimate is available yet on the overtime that will be required to fill the shifts because drivers get paid different wages. RFTA paid about $374,000 in overtime through June in its record year of 2008. It’s paid about $300,000 in overtime so far this year, Blankenship said.
While RFTA will hire more drivers for summers and winters now that it’s close to having a year under its belt with the expanded system, the bus agency also wants to avoid overstaffing. The demand for drivers will ease somewhat after Labor Day weekend and really tail off for October and November.
Blankenship said RFTA logged 3.8 million miles of service in 2012, the last full year before the expansion. This year it anticipates logging 4.8 million or about 25 percent more.
The trick is to hire the right number of drivers to adequately cover the shifts, but not swell so large that numerous drivers have to be laid off or sit idle for offseason.
“It’s an art, not a science,” Blankenship said.