By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Commuters will have to wait a little longer to catch a bus this year, as DASH announced on Dec. 30 it will be reducing service for its local bus network due to a staffing shortage brought on by the pandemic.
Most of DASH’s bus lines, which includes the 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35 and 36A/B, will operate on a Saturday schedule during the week. Lines 102, 103 and 104 will continue to run on their regular Monday through Friday schedules on weekdays since they require less staff to operate.
According to Josh Baker, DASH’s general manager, the decision to reduce service came amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, particularly the highly contagious Omicron variant, and an absentee rate that had climbed to 21% last week. Until last week, DASH was operating at full service with a significantly reduced staff, as employees worked overtime. Eventually, Baker said he realized enough was enough.
“I decided with my team that this is not a sustainable thing for us. It’s not appropriate to expect that from the workforce, so we made the proactive decision to move to the Saturday schedule this week, anticipating that that absentee rate would increase beyond what we were already seeing particularly following the wave of holiday travel,” Baker said.
Alphonza Clements, a bus operator for DASH and union representative for ATU Local 689, said that the recent spike in cases among employees occurred despite DASH’s many attempts to keep drivers safe.
“They took all the precautionary measures you could take as far as trying to protect your operators from the pandemic other than not allowing you to work or earn a living,” Clements said. “… DASH have been doing a good job with all the situations, being proactive instead of reactive. … [They’re] trying to keep the public safe while also serving the operators at the same time.”
By implementing a Saturday schedule, Baker hopes to help make the transition easier for both riders and employees.
“A big part of the strategy was to move to another published service profile that didn’t require anybody to have to relearn anything,” Baker said. “Essentially, if you have a rider guide or if you have access to the DASH website you can simply look at what the buses do on Saturday and plan your trip based off of that.”
Previously, DASH had reduced its service during the previous height of the pandemic in 2020, but by Sept. 5, 2021 – when it rolled out a new route network and eliminated fares – DASH had returned to full service. According to Baker, the city’s bus network was experiencing a sizable increase in ridership as a result of its new network and free fares.
“In August, we were at around 171,000 rides. By October, we were at 256,000 rides,” Baker said of DASH’s cumulative ride totals. “We saw a steady increase that we attributed to the combination of the new network and the fare free. We were probably upwards of 70% of pre-pandemic ridership.”
Ridership numbers have dipped a bit since November – an annual trend that extends until February, Baker said – but labor shortages remain the most pressing challenge. Although the recent issues around staffing are related to rising case numbers, DASH, like transit operators around the country, has been experiencing longer-term employment droughts as well.
“The other struggle for us, just like everybody else, is we struggle to get people in the door. We have positions, we have vacancies we need to fill,” Baker said.
DASH did not start to feel the effects of the nationwide staffing issues until mid to late summer 2021, partly because unlike many transit networks, DASH continued hiring people during the tougher months of the pandemic. But now DASH is receiving fewer applications, and even when it does hire new employees, they don’t necessarily stay for long.
“We do hire people and we train them – we’re willing to do that – but that takes time and then they either go back to their old job or put in an application somewhere else and they want to do that instead,” Baker said.
According to Baker, employees who were eligible for retirement in recent years but might not have considered it are now retiring, whether due to pandemic-era work conditions or other reasons. He also admitted that transit jobs can be demanding and require a specific kind of person.
“Transit and infrastructure jobs are not stay at home jobs. We cannot change what we do to make the job more appealing for someone who wants to be out there,” Baker said. “… You have to find a specific kind of person, so that automatically makes it a more unique job to search for.”
Between staffing shortages and a new contagious variant of COVID-19, Baker said he will continue to follow the advice of public health officials as the region navigates this deadly new chapter of the pandemic.
“We’re following the public guidance and guidance from the public health officials that January will be a peak,” Baker said. “We think it’s going to get much worse before it gets better, and we expect that to probably be happening in the next two weeks.”
DASH does not have a date set to resume full-service levels, but Baker said that if case and absentee numbers continue to trend upward, residents should expect further service reductions.
“We don’t have an expected date as to when we would restore service to a typical Monday through Friday schedule, and frankly, I think it’s irresponsible to promise the public something that we don’t have any idea about,” Baker said. “We’re all trying to figure this out as it goes.”