OCEAN CITY — With the peak season rapidly approaching, Ocean City still has a critical shortage of municipal bus drivers to meet the demand, although steps were taken this week to enhance recruitment.
During Monday’s regular council meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan briefed his colleagues on a special meeting of the Transportation Committee he called earlier on Monday to address the serious municipal bus driver shortage. The transportation committee is scheduled to meet next Tuesday, but Meehan called the meeting early after getting the most recent bus driver recruitment numbers.
“I called this meeting a week early after reviewing the notes from the city manager,” he said. “We’re still trying to aggressively recruit in the transportation department. The impact is highly visible as we’re only getting out about half of our weekend bus deployment.”
Meehan said the driver shortage is curtailing the town’s efforts to get buses out on the highway as the summer ramps up.
“This is a red flag,” he said. “We knew our recruitment of bus drivers was down. The committee made a number of recommendations to try to increase the pool we reach from including paying overtime for the tram drivers and also recruiting from other divisions to work on the trams and the buses.”
While the number of Boardwalk tram drivers is lagging, Meehan said the situation with bus driver recruitment was more acute. There are also issues with the number of drivers in the public works department’s solid waste division.
“The biggest problem right now, although we still have to address the trams, is with the buses and the number of deployments we’re able to put out on the roadways,” he said. “The number of deployments are about half of what we were able to do last year. Deployments are down significantly, and the number of drivers is down significantly. Currently, we have 44 drivers on staff. Last year at this time, we had 62, and that was during COVID summer.”
Meehan said the reasons for the shortages were varied.
“There’s a lot of reasons for that,” he said. “A lot of drivers did not come back, and some of that is COVID-related. Some of them have taken other jobs. A lot of our drivers are retired, and they just didn’t come back. Also, what we’re seeing is what’s really affected everybody else. Increases in salaries have been going on in all businesses across Ocean City.”
Municipal bus drivers in Ocean City are required to have a CDL license and Meehan said there are a limited number of those licensees in the area and recruiting them is competitive.
“What we’re seeing is a number of these licensees are going to other areas and getting employment in other departments where the salary is higher than what we’re offering,” he said. “We have to look at this seriously. We’re just starting to ramp up our bus service. We’re a little surprised just how fast it came back. We thought it would start slow, but people are returning to public transportation.”
Meehan pointed to last weekend as an example of the problem.
“If you looked at the bus stops this weekend, there were numbers of people waiting for the bus,” he said. “There were large groups waiting for the bus and then crowding onto the buses more than the drivers would like. None of those things are good for public safety when we have aggravated people crowding around bus stops.”
The mayor said the obvious first step to enhance recruitment is to raise the hourly rate for drivers in what has become a competitive employee market.
“In order to address this, we convened this meeting early,” he said. “What we really got down to is we’re going to have to increase the rate we pay our bus drivers with CDL licenses that run the fixed route on Coastal Highway and the Park-and-Ride.”
Currently the hourly rate for CDL-carrying bus drivers with a passenger endorsement and CDL drivers in the solid waste division is $15.60. Meehan said many jurisdictions in the area are paying $18 plus an hour.
Meehan said there was some help possibly on the way with as many as eight local school bus drivers joining the roster when schools are finished for the summer, but even some of those might be lured to higher wages elsewhere.
The mayor pointed to last weekend as an example of the critical shortage.
“Ridership this weekend last year was 1,200,” he said. “This year on the same weekend, it was 8,000. That was with a limited number of drivers and deployments. We simply need more buses out there. Our goal for this year is 75-minimum, but we’re just not going to be able to obtain that in the current conditions.”
Meehan said a motion was made at the transportation committee to increase the hourly rate for CDL-carrying bus drivers to $19.89 effective immediately. The increase in pay would be for the current summer season and would sunset on October 10, or just after Sunfest.
The mayor said the other part of the transportation committee’s motion was a $500 referral bonus. Current employees who refer someone to one of the CDL positions would get the $500 bonus if their referral stayed employed for at least 60 days.
“Time is of the essence, and we want to be at full strength by the end of June and as we head into July,” he said. “We don’t think we’re going to hit the numbers we hit in 2019, but we’re certainly going to be way ahead of 2020. We’re just not in a position to do that right now.”
Meehan said the bus driver recruitment shortcomings were not the result of a lack of effort.
“The transportation committee has worked on this since the beginning of the year and no stone has been left unturned,” he said. “The reality is, this is a different time and we’re going to need to pay more for these CDL drivers.”
With that said, a motion was made to increase the hourly rate for CDL drivers in transportation and solid waste to $19.89. The seemingly arbitrary rate was chosen because that’s where the positions slot in the town’s pay structure. The motion also included the $500 referral bonus. The council voted unanimously to approve the motion.
Councilman John Gehrig said increased revenue from having more buses and drivers out the road should make the increase budget-neutral.
“It shouldn’t be a big expense,” he said. “All of our revenue estimates in the budget were extremely conservative. The revenue should cover the cost.”
“The increased deployments should cover the cost,” he said. “There aren’t many transportation systems in the country that make money, but it’s an added service that people expect and deserve. We haven’t had many complaints, but we’re starting to get some.”