Bloomington’s public bus system is about 10 drivers short of the number needed to ramp service back up to meet the needs of Indiana University students and affiliates in a post-COVID-19 climate.
“For us to be able to restore the full level of service to the IU campus, we would need to hire about 10 drivers,” Bloomington Transit general manager Lew May told the board at its monthly meeting on Tuesday.
Indiana University is resuming in-person classes in the fall.
May laid out the urgency of the hiring situation: “We’ve got about four months to go, to make those hires.”
To help with the hiring effort, at Tuesday’s meeting, BT’s board approved a series of incentives.
Incentives include: increasing the employee referral incentive from $1,000 to $3,000; implementing a new employee hiring incentive of $3,000; a $100 incentive for getting a COVID-19 vaccination.
BT is also planning to host an on-site job fair in mid-May where applicants could be interviewed on the spot.
Board member Doug Horn also got his colleagues’ informal support for May to explore the possibility of using the $3,000 incentive to compensate employment agencies who could refer drivers to BT.
In pre-pandemic times, 70 percent of BT riders were IU affiliates. Ridership during the pandemic, which started impacting BT in mid-March last year, has averaged around 20 percent of normal levels.
In March this year, ridership is still way under normal levels. But it’s about 33 percent of the non-pandemic March 2019 figure, which reflects some recovery compared to the roughly 20 percent of previous months.
In March 2021, about 91,000 rides were taken on fixed route BT buses, compared to 275,000 in March 2019.
Hiring challenges are not unique to BT, among transit systems, or other regional employers, according to May.
According to a memo from May, which was included in the board’s meeting information packet, NSWC Crane is offering a $5,000 hiring incentive. According to May’s memo, a local Toyota dealership is offering a $5,000 hiring incentive for technicians.
Other Hoosier transit systems are also experiencing a driver shortage, according to May. Indianapolis is 53 drivers short. Lafayette is 20 drivers short. South Bend is 10 drivers short. And Fort Wayne is 5 drivers short, according to May’s memo.
The uncertainty about BT’s achievable level of staffing has led to a recommendation from May that the new optimized routes that were originally set to be implemented in fall 2020, also not be implemented in fall 2021.
Instead, the strategy is for BT to do its best to recruit and train up to 10 additional drivers between now and August 2021, so full service can be provided when IU resumes in-person classes.
It’s possible that the new optimized routes could be implemented in January 2022 or delayed until August 2022, according to the memo.
Also at its Tuesday meeting, the BT board voted to continue through May 18 its COVID-19 protocols, which include fare-free, rear-door boarding, and the closure of its downtown transit center.
A handful of speakers weighed in during public commentary time in favor of continuing fare-free boarding, after the pandemic is over.