Columbus Bus Authority Says Its Hard To Recruit New Drivers.

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Alvin Butler has been a COTA driver for 21 years
Alvin Butler has been a COTA driver for 21 years

The Central Ohio Transit Authority has been working to restore routes and service hours that were cut due to financial hardship last year. 10,000 hours were restored in May, and the bus system hopes to replace as many as 40 coaches before the end of the year. But COTA is having a hard time finding new drivers

It’s around 3 p.m. at the cavernous COTA garage on McKinley Ave. where bus after bus rolls out onto the street. For some of the newer drivers, it’s their second time out the door today. They hit the streets early in the morning for rush hour. They took a few hours off, now they’re back in the afternoon to complete the day’s work. A COTA driver’s salary can surpass $40,000 a year. But the staggered schedule makes for a very long day says Theotis James, president of Transport Workers union Local 208.

“You’ll hear a dollar amount but you won’t hear how many hours they’re working to get that amount,” James says. “That’s really one of the things I think that needs to be pointed out. They’re working from 4:30 in the morning to 1:30 the next morning. They’re earning every bit of that money and more.”

At present COTA has about 360 driver positions and about 5 vacancies. But the number of drivers needed will increase as new busses are bought and more routes and hours are added. Bill Lhota is COTA’s president and CEO.

“As we ramp up service, we need a significant number; I’m talking over a hundred new bus operators,” Lhota says. “We’re interested in anyone who wants to drive a bus to apply.”

Lhota adds that in the next 7 to 10 years, the company expects to nearly double its present service. And that means hiring more drivers.

“We have two full-time staff recruiters recruiting bus operators,” Lhota says. “But currently it’s very difficult to find bus operators. We are putting them into class. We have attrition due to retirements, discharges, terminations, so we’re not able to increase to the level I would like us to see. But we’re trying to ramp up the service that Central Ohio desires and needs.”

One of the recruiters is COTA’s human resources director Bryan Ware.

“We obviously have to do a lot of background checks,” Ware says. “We need drivers that are very personable, have good customer service skills. We’re looking for drivers that have a clean criminal history; good safe drivers with no points, no moving violations,” he says.

Under the current contract a bus operator with 8 years of service makes about $45,000 dollars annually. But the starting salary is about half that. Trainees make $10.50 an hour. They start driving at an hourly rate of $10.90.

“We need to look at our starting salary,” Lhota says. “We’re paying just around $11 an hour for our starting salary. Secondly a new bus operator may have to spend a significant number of hours – between 12 and 14 hours – to get an 8 hour day in because or work load is peak based. It’s peak based in the morning and peak based in the evening. So they may have to come in two or three segments of a day to get their 8 hours in when they’re a young, new operator on our system.”

Bus operator Alvin Butler sits in the day room at COTA talking with other drivers. He’s 50 with two children at home. And he’s been driving for COTA for 21 years. He knows the hardships that drivers face.

“It’s a challenge,” Butler says. “Everyday you’ve got to be flawless. You could have a bad accident. Traffic. People aren’t very nice. It’s always the bus’s fault. Always. Cut you off and you have to keep your cool.” Butler says there are distractions inside the bus, too.

“People getting up moving around; they’re trying to be prompt to ring the bell as they’re getting off the coach. I hear complaints sometimes, ‘Well the driver really doesn’t talk very much.’ I hear that a lot. ‘Doesn’t talk.’ We really don’t have a lot of time to talk other than to greet you and be cordial. The most important thing for us is safety. And you try to run a schedule to be on time.”

But COTA’s human resources director Bryan Ware says that for the right individual a position at COTA driver can be fulfilling.

“I think it can be very rewarding for the right person,” Ware says. “If someone likes to work with people it can be a very rewarding job. There’s definitely a lot of stresses in it but for the right individual they can really go real far within COTA.

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