Pittsburgh Regional Transit is on pace to pay more than $5 million in unscheduled overtime to bus and light rail operators in 2022 for the second time in three years.

Because of a chronic shortage of drivers exacerbated by 48 of them being fired earlier this year for refusing the mandate to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine, the agency has reduced service and will challenge the record for unscheduled overtime pay for operators. If trends continue, three drivers could challenge the highest amount of overtime in the past five years.

Figures released by the agency show it paid operators $3.875 million in unscheduled overtime through September. Since 2018, the agency has spent at least $3.482 million in unscheduled overtime with a high of $5.175 million in 2020.

Among individual operators through October, Francis D. Clothier, who works out of the Ross garage, had earned $36,255 in unscheduled overtime; Martie M. Hall (East Liberty garage), $34,154; and Karen R. Wright (East Liberty garage), $33,088. Hall holds the five-year record of $45,197 in overtime in 2020 for a total pay of $205,062 that’s also the highest in five years.

When the agency approved reducing service by about 2% last month, CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said she believed the staff of 1,048 operators had reached its “tipping point” for overtime. That played a role in reducing service to allow more drivers to be available to fill trips that otherwise would be missed, she said, because she believes reliability should be a top priority.

“We’ve hit our tipping point,” she said. “Our folks have answered the call. People can be amazing, but there is a tipping point where we can’t ask them to work any more overtime.”
This year’s overtime has come at a time when the number of operators is at its lowest level in the past five years. The agency had 1,048 operators in July, the lowest since 1,120 in July 2020, which means this year’s near-record overtime is being divided among fewer operators. The agency considers 1,232 a full staff of operators, so this year it is operating 184 below full staff.

Ross Nicotero, president and business agent for Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said last month his staff was “being worked to the bone” with overtime, but he declined further comment because the union was still in contract talks with the agency. He hasn’t been available since a new contract was approved Nov. 13.

Unscheduled overtime is allotted to operators based on seniority. As a result, drivers with the highest seniority and highest regular wages get the first shot at extra time.

And there are limits on how much time drivers are allowed to work. Under federal rules, operators can work a maximum of 16 hours a day and 30 hours over two days.

In addition to unscheduled overtime, operators also can receive scheduled overtime. If a driver is scheduled for a route where, for example, three round trips during a day take 9 hours and 15 minutes, the driver is scheduled to receive 1 hour and 15 minutes of overtime every day he or she is assigned to that route.

Routes also are chosen by drivers through seniority, so drivers with the most experience can qualify for the most regularly scheduled overtime as well.

National problem

The shortage of public transit operators isn’t only a problem in Pittsburgh.

Matt Dickens, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association, said a survey earlier this year showed that 96% of agencies were experiencing a shortage of drivers. More than 80% said that shortage is affecting their ability to provide scheduled service.

The survey didn’t directly look at how much overtime agencies are paying, Dickens said, but there’s a priority on meeting scheduled service.

“Obviously, when you’re talking about meeting service needs and there aren’t enough operators, there will be overtime,” he said. “Getting more drivers on the road is always the goal. It isn’t always possible to make up the shortage with overtime.

“Missing trips is worse in some ways than cutting service. Agencies want people to be able to rely on service. That provides a little confidence in the system.”

Like many other industries, public transit has seen workers reevaluating their careers and lifestyles as a result of the pandemic, which has led many to retire or switch jobs. About 25% of shortages are related to retirements, Dickens said.

To combat the shortage, 55% of agencies across the country have increased starting pay, the survey showed. In addition, agencies are offering hiring and retention bonuses, referral bonuses to current employees who recommend driver candidates, a speedier hiring process, realigning scheduling so new drivers don’t always have the least desirable routes, and paid training while candidates work to obtain their commercial driving license, which Pittsburgh Regional began last year.

In its new contract with operators, Pittsburgh Regional increased sick days for new employees to five during the first year to improve retention. Previously, they received two sick days after they completed one year of service.

“It is difficult work,” Dickens said. “That is why we’re seeing places having issues with front-line workers.”

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.