OCEAN CITY — The acute labor shortage plaguing nearly every sector of the resort’s economy has spilled over to the Boardwalk tram only about half the staff needed for the service hired thus far.
During Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting, an overview of the recruiting and hiring efforts for the municipal bus system and the Boardwalk tram was provided. The tram, which did not run at all last summer because of the pandemic, is set to return the Friday of Memorial Day weekend this year.
It was also announced during the committee meeting Transit Manager Mark Rickards is retiring and Operations Manager Steve Bartlett is acting in an interim role for the summer season. Rickards will be working on other special research projects for the transportation department until his retirement becomes official.
In terms of bus driver and Boardwalk tram driver and conductor recruiting, Bartlett said both departments were at about half of the desired number, but the problem with the trams was more acute.
“The tram situation is not good,” he said. “We’re at about 50% of where we need to be. I can get by with what I have in bus drivers, but I’d like a few more.”
Bartlett said if he had to start the season right now, the tram service on the Boardwalk would be greatly diminished.
“If the numbers hold, that represents a total of five trams on any given day,” he said. “Pre-COVID, I would run 12 in a day. We’d have four running during the day and eight running at night. We’re looking right now at five all day.”
There was some discussion about deploying the trams at peak times to maximize the revenue with the limited number of operators. Public Works Director Hal Adkins cautioned against changing the start time day to day or even week to week, however.
“If you start changing the start times, it will be a disaster,” he said.
When asked for his opinion on why there was so little interest in driving and operating the trams, Bartlett was frank in his assessment. He said many of the tram drivers from prior years voiced concern about the safety on the Boardwalk, particularly late at night and particularly in June.
“A lot of it has to do with what happened on the Boardwalk last year,” he said. “It was a safety issue for some. Some of it is COVID. I made 13 calls and zero said they were coming back.”
No matter, Bartlett said he would have the trams necessary on the Boardwalk to meet the demand.
“Supervisors are going to have to drive a tram once in a while,” he said. “That’s going to happen. We will deploy as many trams as we have the staff to do so.”
During a similar discussion about bus driver recruitment efforts, the possibility of pulling employees from other departments who wanted extra work to drive the Boardwalk trams and fill in the gaps was discussed. Bus drivers are required to have a CDL license, while the tram operators simply need a driver’s license. Mayor Rick Meehan said employees from other departments could help fill in the gaps from the trams.
“Have you looked at other departments for people who want to work some overtime?” he said. “Maybe some on the beach patrol want to do it. They know Ocean City. They know the Boardwalk.”
The tram discussion then switched to COVID-related issues. Throughout the winter and spring when it became apparent the trams would run again this summer, the thinking all along was there would still be mask requirements for riders, along with limited seating and other restrictions. With those restrictions be eased, including the outdoor mask requirement, Adkins was looking for guidance in terms of the trams.
“It’s an outdoor activity,” he said. “Technically, it’s an amusement. We were going to close off certain seats and require riders to wear masks and have the appropriate signage. Now that things have changed somewhat, do we go with those things now?”
Meehan said he had some discussions with Worcester County Health Officer Becky Jones about the trams.
“We do not need to require masks on the tram,” he said. “We also do not have to eliminate any seats. I checked with Becky and she’s comfortable with us not having to do those things.”
Meehan agreed the tram was an outside activity and potential riders could make their own decisions based on their comfort levels.
“If the riders don’t feel comfortable, they can still wear a mask on the tram,” he said. “That goes for everywhere outside. They can also choose not to ride the tram if they don’t feel comfortable.”
When asked if the tram operators would be required to wear masks, Bartlett said most likely would voluntarily even if it wasn’t mandated.
“They were comfortable when the riders were going to have to wear masks and they were going to be wearing masks,” he said. “We might lose some. Most of my tram staff are retirees.”