Livengood: Flip burgers or drive a Detroit bus? DDOT’s labor crisis is not rocket science.
Despite these concerns from Duggan No. 2, the mayor’s administration does not appear to be taking any action to resolve the wage issue.
The Duggan administration appears to have gotten stuck in the mud, following a scale of union agreements rather than doing what other service companies do when they really, really need workers: pay more.
Instead of increasing wages or offering hazard allowances, the mayor’s administration is reducing the frequency of bus routes, which will result in longer waiting times for the bus. They are doing this because of the driver shortage and lower passenger numbers during the pandemic.
Instead of continuing to have chronically delayed buses, DDOT is reducing the number of buses it puts on the road in order to be on time more often, said DDOT director Mikel Oglesby.
“We’re not trying to get rid of the service in general,” Oglesby recently told Crain. “It will be there and you can plan your life based on it, and that is the goal of what we do.”
In June, DDOT’s afternoon “departure rate” – the percentage of buses leaving on time to begin a route – was just 57 percent. Two years ago, the exit rate for buses was in the mid-1990s.
The bus route cuts won’t go into effect until November 15, two weeks after Detroit voters decide whether Duggan will be awarded a third four-year term as mayor.
Earlier this year, Detroit increased start-up costs for bus drivers from $ 12.99 to $ 15 an hour. The union wage scale is now $ 21 an hour after previously hitting $ 18.56 an hour.
Across town, at the SMART bus station in Wayne County in Inkster, bus drivers start at around $ 17 an hour and get $ 7.50 an hour through the end of the year. SMART pays the risk surcharge premium from its pot with CARES Act Dollars, which the federal government has made available to the transport companies.
In other words, a bus driver can currently earn 83 percent more on SMART than on DDOT driving many of the same thoroughfares – Jefferson, Gratiot, Van Dyke, Woodward, Fort, Michigan.
There are differences in the service packages between the two transport companies. But it is the starting wage that often drives the hiring decisions of a multi-option worker. In Troy, the private school bus operator First Student Inc. is offering $ 19 an hour with a $ 1,000 or $ 2,000 signature bonus – another option for a DDOT driver to jump off for.
When Duggan announced the $ 15 an hour wage increase in March, the mayor admitted that SMART and other transportation companies often woo away from the ranks of DDOT bus drivers.
“We’ve had times when DDOT trained really good drivers who left us for pay to join SMART or other organizations,” Duggan said.
Even with the upper hand on pay, SMART still has 70 open drivers and is 75 percent of its pre-pandemic service level because it can’t fill jobs fast enough, said Robert Cramer, SMART’s deputy general manager.
“We still have a huge shortage of drivers, mostly on fixed tracks,” Cramer told Crain’s.
Access to reliable transportation is undoubtedly an equity problem in the Detroit metropolitan area. Faster, more reliable and more efficient transport systems lower the barriers to employment and economic upward mobility.
But the job of driving a bus is not easy and it is always desirable. That should be reflected in the driver compensation.
Despite the salary increase earlier this year, DDOT’s starting salaries already seem to have gotten out of hand with the current job market.
And they’re nowhere near the middle-class wages that Mallett recalls were in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Conrad Mallett Sr. had his hand on the wheel.
DDOT sits on top of a $ 51.5 million heap of unspent bailout bailout bailout bailout funds that could be used to provide bus drivers with temporary hazard pay that approaches SMART wages and survives the labor crisis.
The city’s general fund received $ 870 million in federal grants that could also be used to replace lost fare income at DDOT.
A dangerous goods premium of $ 7.50 an hour would cost around $ 120,000 a week for DDOT’s 400 or so bus drivers who work full-time. That’s an annual cost of $ 6.24 million – a literal rounding error in Detroit’s federal stimulus package.
Giving only bus drivers the dangerous goods allowance can upset other unions in the city – police, fire departments, public works – but these officials are not directly responsible for people coming to work every day. Bus drivers are an underrated cog in Detroit’s economic engine.
And that engine won’t return to pre-pandemic growth and productivity if employees are late for work due to a disabled city bus system.
The time has come for Duggan and Detroit City Councils to raise driver wages as necessary to address this labor crisis head-on.