ITHACA, N.Y. — For Agnes Beck, being at the helm of a bus, being the person that makes the daily commute happen, has affirmed a simple truth: “There is a value to being a transit driver. There’s a value whether people think it or not.”
Although it is at times an ornery customer that takes for granted the people that keep our transit systems running, Beck, and many other drivers at TCAT, have begun to sincerely feel as if their employer undervalues the duties they perform.
Drivers at TCAT are exhausted. They’re choosing to speak out in the midst of tight contract negotiations between the transit company and United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300, the union that represents TCAT’s bus operators. Their issues with the workplace, drivers contend, have been building for years now.
The pay, long hours, unsuccessful recruiting efforts, and a lack of meaningful communication with management and the Board of Directors, are some of the primary factors contributing to driver’s discontent at TCAT, as well as the gradually declining staff and unsuccessful attempts to address those staff issues.
Since reaching a high of 90 drivers at TCAT in 2018, the bus service has seen drivers consistently walking away from the steering wheel. As of this report, TCAT has 59 full time drivers and 5 part time. Two more drivers are stepping away from the company later this October.
Nearly all of the drivers spoken to for this report said that they are seriously considering leaving TCAT and using their commercial driver’s license to drive for another company — that is if current contract negotiations don’t yield meaningful results.
“I have nothing to lose. I have my CDL combination license. I can go drive a tractor trailer. I’m marketable, and so is every driver in this place,” said Beck. “We’re all waiting for the contract. That’s what everybody’s waiting for to make a move.”
Along with Beck, Desiree Johnson is another TCAT driver that has felt it necessary to come forward to raise the concerns they have about their workplace.
“[TCAT] is a good service. It’s an important service to this community, and I would hate to see it disappear. […]But I think that it can be better,” said Johnson. “I think that all voices need to be heard, and that is why I’m putting my name out there.”
Drivers are consistently walk away from the steering wheel
Virtually all drivers The Ithaca Voice spoke with — most of which on the condition of anonymity — emphasized that their issues with the workplace and management don’t come from any personal animosity. Many offered unsolicited compliments towards TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool, who was called “amazing,” and a “wonderful man.” Vanderpool’s flat out refusal to lay off TCAT drivers at the start of the pandemic was often cited as an incredibly meaningful act to drivers.
However, due to the union negotiations, Vanderpool’s hands are tied when it comes to speaking with the press. In a statement emailed to The Ithaca Voice, Vanderpoool said, “Because we are in contract negotiations, it would be counterproductive for me to comment in any specific detail. I can say that TCAT managers do take to heart the concerns of our drivers and of all of our employees.”
Drivers at TCAT make a maximum of just over $23.67 an hour. That’s whether they’ve been working there for a year or 15 years. The pay that bus drivers receive has not tracked with the increase in the New York State’s minimum wage. In 2014, when Johnson started driving for TCAT, the minimum wage had just increased to $8.75, but it is now at least $14.20 an hour for all employees across the state.
The level of responsibility that drivers bear, compared to the wages that they’re earning, has contributed to frustration among TCAT’s bus operators. One driver, speaking anonymously to The Ithaca Voice, said “I see signs at Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s starting at $16 an hour. I’ve had to go through all this training. I’m driving a 40,000 pound bus with 70 people’s lives depending on me, and I’m only making $23.68.”
“You can’t change the industry. You can’t change the demand of the people,” said Beck. “But you can change the pay to keep drivers. You have got to keep drivers.”
Part of the industry are the long hours bus operators pull, which are sometimes as long as 14 or 15 hours. At the root of these long days are the need for TCAT to service the morning and evening commuter rushes. Though drivers end up with a split in their shift. This normally can last around 3 hours, but drivers need to surrender 2.5 hours of pay during their split.
During their splits in their shifts, drivers are able to do whatever they want — hit the grocery store, go home and take a nap if they live close enough. But the time is spoken for in a way, drivers say. It’s restricted, and drivers with families feel this acutely.
If a TCAT driver works five 12 hour days for 60 hour weeks, they can see their split constitute up to 15 hours of unpaid time in their day.
“It’s a grueling, relentless schedule,” said Beck.
“This is not the place to work for people with families,” said one driver, speaking anonymously.
“We’re struggling to find younger drivers who are willing to work these hours at this pay,” said Johnson, who believes that it is possible to shorten the shifts that drivers work to 8 or 9 hour days, but that this will first mean closing the driver shortage, which current bus operators at TCAT say is not going well.
New drivers are not sticking, and the departure of senior drivers who have put 15 years or more of the career into TCAT has been demoralizing. When Johnson started in 2014, she was number 77 on staff. Now she’s the 20th most senior driver. Beck was driver number 74 when she started in 2016. Now she’s the 24th most senior driver.
In an effort to bring more drivers on board, TCAT pays prospects as they train to earn their commercial driver’s license. Though for those that matriculate through the program, there is no clause for a minimum period of time for those that earn their CDL on TCAT’s dollar to then drive for the transit agency. It is frequently the case that people that earn their CDL through TCAT’s training program soon leave the company and drive for another organization.
“People come and go so quick you don’t even remember their names,” one anonymous driver told The Ithaca Voice.
“It’s so hard working at a place like this, where they spend 1000s and 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of dollars training people to walk out the door with their license,” said Beck. “How this makes sense to anyone, we’ll never know.”
In previous conversations with The Ithaca Voice, Vanderpool has said that TCAT is aiming to address this loophole.
There is a widespread concern among TCAT drivers that TCAT’s Board of Directors is getting an inaccurate sense of what TCAT’s retention rate is for its hires. At their Sept. meeting, TCAT’s board of Directors were given a presentation that listed a retention rate for TCAT employees charting above 90% for all of 2021, and 92% for the first quarter of 2022 and 96% for the second quarter.
“One of the biggest problems is honesty — honesty to our Board of Directors with what’s actually going on with retention,” said Johnson.
In an email to The Ithaca Voice, Vanderpool said that the retention rates reported to the Board of Directors are agency-wide.
The transit industries problems are TCAT’s problems
TCAT, and the transit industry, are caught in the socio-economic disruptions tailing the COVID-19 pandemic. Budgetary projections from TCAT are showing that the transit company will likely face rapidly increasing costs, in part from rising price of insurance, fuel, and parts. In a previous statement to The Ithaca Voice, Vanderpool said that “wages and benefits are going to be a big part” of the increase in expenditures.
TCAT’s operating expenditures were projected to increase from just over $15M in 2021, to over $20.7M. Revenues for TCAT have also been projected to stagnate, leading TCAT to project that it will have to to use its emergency and contingency funds to plug the gaps in its budget. These projections, TCAT staff have insisted, can change from month to month, though at the moment the transit agency is projecting to run through its emergency and contingency funds by 2024, with a deficit of around $3.7M.
“It feels like the company itself is in survival mode, and then it’s putting everyone else involved in survival mode,” said Johnson.
Bus drivers walking away from their jobs has been a prominent thread within the Great Resignation, the nationwide trend of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The result was a decreasing number of drivers, working overtime—sometimes under mandates—in order to maintain TCAT’s bus service. Though, eventually, the bus company has had to right-size its service, cutting routes to alleviate the pressure put on their transit operators. Nonetheless drivers are saying that they’ve reached a breaking point.
Mechanics are also feeling burdened at the organization. TCAT currently has 7 of its 12 mechanic positions filled, highlighting the precarious status of maintenance at the agency.
Vanderpool emphasized these challenging conditions in his statement.
“As I’ve mentioned before, we acknowledge that these are challenging times with worker shortages and equipment issues, which directly affect our employees on a daily basis. Our No. 1 priority is addressing these problems with any and all resources we have available. Unfortunately, there are no easy or quick fixes. The transit industry has come up with a list of potential solutions, all of which TCAT is or will seriously consider for implementation, based on our available resources.”
To some extent, drivers are tired of hearing that their issues with the workplace are a part of a national problem. The drivers The Ithaca Voice spoke with want to talk about what’s not working for TCAT drivers at TCAT.
‘Why are we on a need-to-know basis?’
When it comes to the direction that the company is going in, the drivers at TCAT say they feel like they’re in the dark. They understand that there are challenges that the company is facing, but a deep sense of dissatisfaction has been brewing over a lack of effective communication between them and management when it comes to little, or bigger things.
One example Beck cited was the internal promotion of one TCAT employee to Operations Manager, saying that she and the majority of staff learned about the decision through a public announcement, instead of an internal introduction.
Many drivers cited the lounge room as a point of frustration. The driver lounge at TCAT’s office building is the space that bus operators will spend the time in between shifts, but complain that the space is under furnished. There’s a single refrigerator for all of the drivers to share, two microwaves, a couch, three recliners, and a set of about 15 chairs surrounding a large table.
A larger grievance among drivers is that they feel their input on matters like efficiency of certain routes isn’t really valued by management. Drivers sit on an internal committee at TCAT with management personnel, where there’s an opportunity to talk about routes and ridership, but input does not translate into action, and choices are generally not explained to them.
“Why are we on a need-to-know basis? It is about everything. It is literally about everything,” said Beck.
The lack of a meaningful exchange between drivers and management at TCAT deepened the dissatisfaction bus operators felt when they were faced with shift mandates.
Coming out of the pandemic, TCAT was faced with a dilemma. Their ridership had been decimated by COVID, dropping by 66% in 2020, compared to 2019 levels. While rider fares make up a small part of TCAT’s revenue stream, the company’s ridership and bus-miles traveled are the basis on which New York State’s Department of Transportation awards Statewide Transportation Operating Assistance (STOA). This state funding covered around 37% of the approximately $15 million in operating expenditures TCAT had in 2019.
Until Aug. 2022, TCAT was mandating drivers to work extra shifts, with the hope that while its driver staff provided a transit service past the company’s capacity, recruitment efforts would fill the positions it needed to meet that level of service. Mandating shifts was a short term strategy that burned drivers out, and TCAT was forced to make major cuts to its service at the start of the Fall to alleviate the pressure put on its staff.
One anonymous driver said, “From a management perspective, I understand why they’re doing some of the things they have to do. Ultimately TCAT has to provide a service, whether we have 63 drivers, or we have 163 drivers […] but I think some of these routes can be run more efficiently. And we brought that up several times to them, but they don’t want to hear our solutions because we’re not part of the management team.”
‘The public are getting short changed the most.’
Feeling the brunt of the challenges that TCAT is facing are the customers. Hordes of Cornell students — who make up around 75% of TCAT’s ridership — are stuck standing on the curb after watching a TCAT bus fill up. Riders on rural and suburban routes are complaining about their bus being sometimes 30 minutes late, or more.
“The public are getting short changed the most,” one anonymous driver said.
One regular TCAT rider said that the dissatisfaction and stress that drivers are feeling is obvious. Another regular TCAT rider who uses a rural route said if they had a driver’s license they would be driving, or if he could afford to live in Ithaca they would, but they are depending on a bus service that has begun to lose their trust
“If you have this idea that you’re only going to cut services because of low ridership you’re never actually going to build the kind of trust in the buses that you need in order to gain the ridership,” they said.
For drivers like Johnson, this moment in TCAT’s history feels existential for the company.
“If we don’t see more pay, if we don’t see more retention of drivers, and even having vehicles that are not constantly breaking down. If we can’t get that up and running again, this company is going to be in some trouble,” said Johnson.
“The public needs to know what was going on. And they needed the perspective of the drivers. […] and maybe the public can help us, maybe rally with us as we’re trying to get some changes. Because we’re not happy about the cuts in service either.”
Correction (10/17/2022): This story originally incorrectly reported that TCAT did not have any mechanics on staff. TCAT has 7 of its 12 positions filled.