OCEAN CITY — Heading into mid-May, the Town of Ocean City has about half of the desired number of bus drivers for the summer season, it was learned this week.
During Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting, an update was provided on the recruiting and hiring efforts for drivers for the municipal bus system. Interim transit manager Steve Bartlett said the desired total number of drivers needed for the summer was 120 for full deployment, but his department was currently at about half that number.
Bartlett said the current number is sufficient to meet the demand with a minimum deployment schedule and limited hours, but there would be challenges during the summer if the staff didn’t round out. There could be some relief coming next month with school bus contractors joining the team, but that won’t be until the middle of June and it is uncertain just how many of them the town will attract.
Bartlett said the low recruiting numbers are not because of a lack of effort. The town has done an extensive amount of advertising to fill the needed bus driver positions. In addition, Bartlett said the town has reached out to former bus drivers to gauge if there is any interest in returning.
“Out of the 100 or so contacts we made with people who worked for us before, we got two out of that,” he said. “A lot of it is COVID. Many haven’t gotten their second shot yet. Some gave an indication they might return if they get their second shot.”
Bartlett said he was comfortable with the number of drivers he has now with the current deployment schedule, but raised concerns about if and when the deployment schedule ramps up.
“This pool just isn’t going to meet our needs,” he said. “We need to plan for the future and how we’re going to get drivers.”
Council Secretary and committee member Tony DeLuca said he didn’t think the current number of drivers was going to meet the summer demand.
“I think there’s going to be an issue this year,” he said. “We’re at 50% of where we need to be. We need to look at things outside the box. Maybe we need to look at things like bonuses.”
Bartlett said his department is looking at outside-the-box ideas including augmenting the bus driver pool with town employees from other departments. The problem with that is driving the municipal bus requires a special license and training.
“We can pull people who work for the city in other departments who want a little extra work,” he said. “We’ve done that before when we’ve been short. We’re working on a lot of things.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said that has been done before, but there are financial issues to consider when an employee already works full-time and then does another couple of shifts driving the bus.
“The problem with pulling people from other departments is they’re probably already at 40 hours in their regular job,” he said. “They can get to overtime pretty quickly.”
Currently, and until further notice, the municipal buses are running from 6:20 a.m. to 11:35 p.m. with 20-minute wait times the goal. Adkins said there will likely be more demand for later service when the seasonal workforce arrives and businesses are open later.
“The challenge is when the seasonal workforce gets here and if we have J-1s come back at any level, we’re going to hear ‘can’t you go to midnight?’ and ‘can’t you go to 1 a.m.?” he said. “We need to figure out how to address the workers without going to 24 hours.”
Adkins said the transportation department could find out from the tourism side what the late-night demand might be in terms of employee needs. There will likely be more demand from the late-night bar crowd, a situation that wasn’t really an issue last year during the height of the pandemic. While there is no desire right now for 24-hour service, the end time could be adjusted to meet the demand.
Mayor Rick Meehan said it needed to be determined if changing the end time for the buses each night was meeting a demand to get employees home from their jobs, or some other purpose. Meehan pointed out many of the young people and recent graduates that typically invade the resort in June simply ride around on the bus for entertainment.
“The problem is in June, you get a lot of young people riding the bus just to ride the bus,” he said. “That’s not something we want to encourage with the later hours.”
Councilman and committee member Mark Paddack pointed out the importance of having municipal buses out on the streets at closing time for restaurants and bars in order to move people around quickly and safely.
“It’s critical to get the buses out there at bar closing,” he said. “If you don’t and there are crowds of people on the street, it becomes a volatile situation with drunken melees.”