Council Approves Incentive Plan To Retain, Recruit Bus, Tram Drivers; Referral, Loyalty Bonus Suggested

OCEAN CITY – Citing a continued need to recruit seasonal municipal bus drivers and Boardwalk tram drivers and conductors, resort officials last week approved a series of incentives to attract and reward new employees.

Ongoing discussions at the Ocean City Transportation Committee level regarding a series of incentives for municipal bus drivers and Boardwalk tram drivers made their way to the Mayor and Council, which ultimately approved them. Ocean City, like many jurisdictions and private sector companies, have been faced with labor shortages in recent years for a variety of reasons, and the shortage for the town’s transit system has been particularly acute.

For example, prior to the pandemic, Ocean City employed around 150 bus drivers to meet its deployment goals. Last year, the number had dwindled to around 90. The transit system has managed to meet its deployment goals for the most part and ridership numbers have nearly returned to pre-COVID levels, but the department is looking to bolster its recruitment efforts through a series of incentives for new and returning bus and tram drivers.

Mayor Rick Meehan presented a series of recommendations to the council last Monday.

“I want to concentrate on items that need to be brought back to the Mayor and Council for approval,” he said. “As you know, we have been working very diligently to recruit bus drivers and to retain bus drivers and tram drivers. Ever since 2020 we lost a lot of drivers due to COVID issues. We’ve had trouble regaining the number of drivers the need to fully operate the transit system to the level we would like to see it operate.”

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For that reason, the transportation committee forwarded to the Mayor and Council a series of incentives aimed at enhancing driver recruitment, according to Meehan.

“We have a number of different incentives to put forth,” he said. “We did have some incentives in the department last year. They have been modified so I wanted to bring them back to the Mayor and Council for support if you choose to do so.”

First on the list of recommendations was a seasonal employee referral bonus set at $500 for any town employee who refers someone to work in the transportation department for the 2023 season. The referred employee must be a new town employee or must not have worked for the town after Dec. 31, 2021.

The referred employee must be hired and complete at least 200 hours of service from the start of Springfest to the end of Sunfest. The initial recommendation for the seasonal employee referral bonus was $300, but Meehan said the department upped the ante to $500 to make it more attractive.

“A $300 bonus in 2023 doesn’t carry the same weight as it did in 1978,” he said. “The recommendation is to really make it something substantial and encourage people to stay for the season.”

The second incentive addressed last week was an end-of-season loyalty bonus for bus drivers and tram drivers and conductors. To be eligible, an employee must complete at least 400 hours during the 2023 season and must work 12 hours or more during Labor Day weekend, the Oceans Calling Festival and Sunfest weekend.

Again, the initial recommendation for the loyalty bonus was $300, but the committee’s final recommendation was for $500. Councilman Will Savage asked if the proposed incentives were included in the town’s existing budget. City Manager Terry McGean said the short answer is the drop-off in recruiting new drivers would result in savings that could be applied to the incentive programs.

“The answer is yes and no,” he said. “These bonuses were not included in the budget. However, the amount of part-time bus drivers that were budgeted, because we can’t get the number we’ve been hoping for, the savings will offset the bonuses.”

A third incentive presented last week was a mini-season bonus for eligible bus and tram drivers who are available to work from the start of Springfest through Labor Day weekend. The initial recommendation was for a $150 mini-bonus, but the committee recommended increasing it to $250. The council unanimously approved each of the incentive programs for bus and tram drivers presented last Monday. Meehan said the approve incentive programs would help the department get a jump on the recruiting efforts for next season.

“The transportation committee feels these incentives and starting salaries will help the department to recruit,” he said. “We want to have this done now so they can start advertising this right now rather than wait until the spring and play catch up. It’s a very competitive market and we feel this will help us fulfill our mission with the transportation department.”

Meehan said despite the drop-off in the number of seasonal drivers, an increase in the number of articulating buses, essentially buses with double to capacity, will offset the smaller staff numbers and still meet ridership goals.

“We do continue to add to our articulating bus fleet,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have 10 artic buses within the next two years. Again, they help us reduce the number of drivers needed and increase the number of people we can carry.”

Council President Matt James encouraged staff to begin exploring what other departments might be seeking for incentive programs or pay increases for employees.

“Can you encourage human resources to work with all departments on any potential pay increase for seasonal employees that we may need for the upcoming year?” he said. “I’d rather get this taken care of now rather than wait until budget time. If we know what’s coming, we can prepare for it.”

McGean said that process has already begun to some degree.

“Our next big one is the beach and we’ve already had some preliminary meetings,” he said. “The goal is the same. We’d like to be able to advertise now and not wait until the season approaches.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.