TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — It seems like every field of work and profession is seeing short staffing like it’s going out of style, and Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) is just one organization hoping the trend really will fall out of fashion. 

TCAT, the public transit operator that serves the the City of Ithaca, Cornell University, and Tompkins County with reliable bus routes, has resorted to putting administrative staff behind the wheel as they struggle to fill bus driver positions.

“Luckily, we have about 10 employees that have moved up the ranks and actually used to be bus drivers,” said TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool. “[…]We’ve got supervisors, dispatchers, safety people, even a customer service rep who answers the phone — they all have a CDL license and can drive a bus.”

Vanderpool said that TCAT had 80 drivers in 2019 and early 2020, but now has 66 drivers on staff. The back-up drivers from TCAT’s administrative staff have kept the transit operator from having to make “severe” cuts to service, but Vanderpool stressed that the shortage isn’t sustainable.

Administrative staff filling in for drivers just turns the labor shortage into a juggling act. Workers taking vacation or sick leave heightens the precarity — a bad combination as a highly contagious respiratory disease still looms over daily life.

After dramatically cutting its service hours during the onset of 2020’s COVID-19 caused shutdowns, TCAT has restored all of its old bus routes, choosing to reduce the number of trips on routes with low ridership rather than making wholesale cuts. Vanderpool said that no bus routes are likely to be cut in the near future, but the worry that staffing issues won’t soon resolve looms over TCAT’s operations. 

“How long can you sustain this? You know, everybody doing extra, everybody doing more?” said Vanderpool. “[…] People are having to go above and beyond what their job description is. How long does that last before there’s a breaking point? So that’s the part that we worry about, and we talk about an awful lot internally.”

The short staffing has recently forced TCAT to mandate its drivers to pick up extra shifts in order to keep the bus lines running

“It’s a necessary evil in order to keep the buses running,” said Kirk Eastburn, a driver for TCAT. “But you end up burning everybody out. It’s a vicious circle.

Drivers were previously being encouraged to pick up extra shifts through double-pay, but with hires continuing to be slow, the mandates became a necessity as the motivation for extra money weakened.

“There are drivers that will fill that void for the money, and go above and beyond their normal schedule. However, over time…you start to get a little tired.” said Eastburn. “I’m sure you’ve heard it before; It’s called burnout.”

Easburn said that he understands the situation TCAT is in, but the mandates are “lowering morale.”

Vanderpool has said that TCAT has been searching far and wide for new recruits, heading to job fairs as far east as Morissville, NY and as far west as Alfred, NY. To help alleviate the added stress on the HR department, TCAT made a new recruiter position which they’ve hired for.

One of the big challenges for recruiting that Vanderpool has identified are the long hours that bus drivers typically need to work. 

Transit operations start early and end late. It is, afterall, the industry that helps other people get to and from work. 

“There’s two extended peak periods,” said Vanderpool. “You might be coming in at six in the morning, have a three hour break in the middle of the day and then be working till seven o’clock at night”

Vanderpool said that the eight week course they offer to help people earn a CDL license is seeing higher drop-out rates than it used to. Vanderpool finds that it’s usually the potential hours that turn people away. 

He said, “This younger generation of workers, understandably, want to be home and want to be with their families and maybe don’t want to work a 13 hour spread of a day.”

Accommodating this shift in expectations is one area Vanderpool said TCAT is turning its attention to. While the long hours are a deterrent for new hires, they’re a burden on current drivers.

“I would love to see that happen here for other drivers, because it really does take away from family life,” said Eastburn. But he was quick to point out that it seems inherently challenging to make shorter shifts for transit workers.

“It’s a real balancing act. I wouldn’t want to be in Scot’s shoes. It’s not a nine to five when you’re in the transit industry. It’s just not nine to five,” said Eastburn.

Vanderpool said that TCAT is exploring adding more part time positions, giving more schedule flexibility, and also creating retention bonuses to keep drivers with the company.

Vanderpool also said that TCAT is trying to get people involved by touting its sustainability initiatives, like electrifying its fleet of buses. TCAT unveiled seven electric buses on 2021, and is working towards adding 5 more to their fleet in 2023.

TCAT’s recruitment process is outlined on its website

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn