Union: Collier Area Transit bus drivers working dangerously long hours due to employee shortage
An employee shortage is causing bus drivers with Collier Area Transit to work dangerously long hours, but a solution is in the works, according to a union representative for the drivers.
“The drivers are tired beyond belief and exhausted,” said Kevin Smith, an international representative for the Transport Workers Union of America. “They can't refuse to work those hours, or they are subject to discipline.”
Collier Area Transit has about 60% to 70% of the drivers it needs to cover all the routes throughout the county, Smith said. Some drivers are being asked to work 12 hours per day, five to six days per week because of the shortage, he said.
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Some drivers are working through the night without a break while others do not have time to eat or go to the bathroom during their shifts, Smith said.
“Being behind the wheel in traffic patterns that are sometimes crazy, especially with the influx of our northerners coming down, it gets a little dicey when you are working that long,” Smith said.
Ivan Esteves, a driver with Collier Area Transit for eight years, said the driver shortage started to have a large impact on him and other drivers in the spring of this year.
“We have been working 12 to 13 hours per day because we don't have enough drivers,” Esteves said. “With the pandemic, we lost a few drivers. With as many open positions as we have now, we just don't have enough drivers.”
Drivers are missing family time, medical appointments and vacations due to the shortage with Collier Area Transit, Esteves said.
"We are all getting tired. It's dangerous working conditions,” Esteves said. “We need more time to sleep and rest because driving for this many hours every day, it's crazy.”
The reason for the driver shortage with Collier Area Transit is low wages, Smith said.
Bus drivers are exposed to the possibility of making a life-changing mistake while driving and losing their jobs because of that on a daily basis, he said.
“There are just too many jobs out there offering $14 or more an hour with no real exposure like a bus driver has,” Smith said. “A bus driver has the possibility of being terminated at every turn if they make a mistake.”
Collier Area Transit is competing with employers, such as Walmart and Amazon
Collier Area Transit is competing with employers, such as Walmart and Amazon, that offer jobs with less exposure than driving a bus and higher wages, Smith said.
"The primarily reason people go to work is to earn a living wage and take care of their families,” Smith said. “If you are split between driving a bus or stocking shelves, you are going to pick stocking shelves because it does not have the exposure.”
The solution is to raise the wages for drivers at Collier Area Transit to attract more applicants and hire more employees, Smith said.
“If we don't bring the wages up then the long hours are going to continue to be a burden on those drivers,” Smith said. “The drivers have been complaining heavily, but they are doing the job. They are pulling these hours at their own expense (of lost time away from work).”
Until the problem is mitigated, more drivers will leave Collier Area Transit and conditions will get worse, Esteves said.
The county contracts with MV Transportation, a Dallas-based company, to hire and manage employees for Collier Area Transit.
The Transport Workers Union of America has met with representatives from Collier County and MV Transportation, and a solution to the driver shortage could be coming soon, Smith said.
"We are asking the county commission to consider an influx of cash into the Collier Area Transit system, which would bring up the wages in such a manner that hiring would be easier,” Smith said.
County commissioners could see an item on their Oct. 26 agenda to push cash into the Collier Area Transit system to increase driver wages, Smith said.
Collier County did not answer questions about the bus driver shortage or potential solutions.
“Collier Area Transit bus drivers are not county employees,” said Connie Deane, spokeswoman for the county, via email. “They are employees of a contract provider that Collier County has hired, which is MV Transportation.”
Jeff Womack, a spokesman for MV Transportation, said his company is in discussions with Collier Area Transit regarding wage adjustments for bus drivers.
“Earlier this year we increased starting wages more than 20% and tripled our sign-on bonus from $500 to $1,500 in addition to raising the training wage for new recruits,” Womack said. “We are currently in discussions with Collier County Area Transit for additional wage adjustments.”
Smith said he is hopeful that all the parties can come together to mitigate the bus driver shortage issues soon.
“The dangerous conditions for drivers are not created by the county or the company,” Smith said. “It's created by somebody being behind the wheel too long.
"We aren't trying to complain that somebody is doing something on purpose to make things dangerous. The drivers just need a break. They need some time off.”