OCEAN CITY — With declining ridership and persistent recruiting challenges, resort officials this week voted to hike the pay rate for municipal bus drivers, solid waste department drivers and supervisors, potentially staving off a planned walkout.
Last week, the Transportation Committee reviewed early summer season ridership numbers for the municipal bus system and the continued challenges in recruiting bus drivers. It was learned there are currently around 67 bus drivers on the payroll, although five were out on medical leave with three expected to return soon.
Because of the acute bus driver shortage, deployments are at about 50% of where they were in 2019, which is used as the pre-COVID baseline for comparison purposes. During a review of last week’s transportation committee highlights at this week’s Mayor and Council meeting, Councilman Frank Knight addressed a proposed increase in the hourly wage for bus drivers, an issue that has been discussed to enhance recruiting efforts.
“Right now, we have about two-thirds of the ridership and only 50% deployment,” he said. “Our drivers are being overworked and it’s been a really bad summer so far. Morale is low. We only have about 60 drivers driving right now I believe. We need drivers. We’re being out-competed all over the tri-state area.”
Knight suggested going back to the hourly rate for bus drivers put in place temporarily last summer because of the shortage and the lingering pandemic.
“Last summer, we paid $20 an hour as a temporary measure throughout COVID and I think we need to revisit that,” he said. “I understand there have been discussions with [Public Works Director Hal] Mr. Adkins, the city manager and [Budget Director] Jennie Knapp and that might be a possibility.”
City Manager Terry McGean said a wage hike for bus drivers, solid waste drivers and supervisors has been discussed and was doable if that was the council’s desire.
“We looked at essentially what we did last year with the bus drivers, the solid waste drivers and the supervisors,” he said. “Last year, we raised the rate to just under $20, and this could raise it to $20.49. The cost to the town to do the program would be around $189,000. We believe if the council wishes to pursue that, I think we can accommodate it with the current budget without going into fund balance.”
McGean explained under the proposed plan, the bus driver hourly rate would increase from the current $17.75 to $20.49. The supervisor hourly rate would increase from $18.21 to $21.46, and the solid waste driver rate would increase from $18.67 to $20.48. Knight made a motion to move forward with the salary hike proposal, a motion seconded by Council Secretary Tony DeLuca.
That motion ultimately passed on a 5-0 vote with Councilmen Lloyd Martin and John Gehrig absent. With the council’s blessing, the proposed pay hike for those employees would be applied in the next pay cycle. The wage increase for bus drivers could help keep the current drivers on the road and be attractive enough to recruit new drivers.
According to a source, with a reduced hourly wage, longer and more shifts and morale generally low, there was a tentative plan for a walkout on Saturday, July 2 in the middle of a holiday weekend. The same source said on Wednesday the salary increase approved by the council on Tuesday would likely stave off that planned walkout.
For his part, Knight said he hoped the approved salary hike for drivers and supervisors would lead to recruiting, hiring and training more drivers for the current summer season.
“I just think it’s really important to hire more drivers,” he said. “I understand some drivers are holding back to see if there is going to be an increase. I think this is the right move for this summer right now. The drivers I talk to say they are passing families every day. The deployments are 15 to 20 minutes apart, and some families are seeing three or four buses go by before they get picked up.”
Councilman Mark Paddack, who also serves on the transportation committee, agreed the pay hike approved on Tuesday could help ease some of the challenges with the municipal bus system.
“I want to thank the city manager and staff for moving quickly on this,” he said. “The transportation committee has been discussing this for months now. The town of Ocean City employees and their families are having a difficult time right now. I personally don’t like seeing families with young children stranded on the sidewalk. I think this is the right thing to do.”