Looking for labor: RIPTA struggles to recruit new drivers

Despite bump, pay lags national average while CDL training costs can be barrier for some

By: - March 15, 2023 5:30 am
Bus passing through downtown Providence

A Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus passes through downtown Providence. The agency is looking for more drivers to get back to full strength in a tight job market. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Candy, little pink paper hearts and job postings were displayed on a table on Valentine’s Day at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s Elmwood Avenue headquarters, waiting for the public to come.

Only eight people did over the four hours the agency held its monthly career fair, officials said. The event was advertised on RIPTA’s social media pages and job boards at the Department of Labor and Training, NAACP, and Skills for Rhode Island’s Future.

The fair was one of the strategies RIPTA is pursuing to end a driver shortage as CEO Scott Avedisian faces calls for his ouster and a possible move from independence to the oversight of the Department of Transportation.

Last fall, the agency announced it had made a deal with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Division 618 to allow recent retirees with still active commercial driver’s licenses to return to work to help alleviate the driver shortage. RIPTA reached out to between 15 and 20 retirees as part of the initiative with one agreeing to return on a part-time basis, officials said.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to get more drivers,” said RIPTA Chief of Human Resources Kathy Nadeau.

Another job fair is scheduled for Friday, March 17, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at its Providence headquarters.

job fair in empty room
There was no line for job seekers at the job fair at the Rhode Island Transit Authority’s Elmwood Avenue headquarters in Providence on Feb. 14, 2023. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

The agency said it needs to hire 32 more drivers to bring services back to its full capacity of 424 fixed-route operators.

In October, the shortage temporarily forced cancellations of morning service to multiple Providence schools and reduced service frequency on 19 fixed routes. But there are no further plans to reduce service frequencies, said RIPTA spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti in an email.

“Our goal is to provide the level of service that our passengers deserve,” Polichetti wrote.

According to Federal Transit Administration data, RIPTA buses drove over 93,000 fewer miles in November, after the change in service frequency.  

RIPTA’s struggle to hire more bus drivers comes as the agency faces scrutiny from Rhode Island Senate President Dominic Ruggerio, who has called for Avedisian’s ouster from the position he’s held since 2018. Ruggerio also wants to move RIPTA under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Transportation. Avedisian has given no indication he will resign and has said he welcomes the opportunity to work with the General Assembly to improve the agency.

Driver shortage is not unique to Rhode Island

The state’s driver shortage follows a trend nationwide as public transit providers face difficulties recruiting and retaining new workers amid an increase in the number of retirements.

An October report published by the American Public Transportation Association found that 96% of public transit agencies in the U.S. are experiencing worker shortages. Among the factors were low morale, low pay, lack of security, and a labor friendly job market; meaning potential recruits could find better pay elsewhere. 

“There is no one particular factor — there are many contributing issues,” RIPTA spokeswoman Cristy Raposo Perry said. “It is a competitive workforce. We will continue to work to address these issues.”

In November, the union and RIPTA agreed to increase the starting wage for RIde drivers from $16.45 to $21.28 an hour. That’s still lower than the national median hourly wage of $23.37 for transit and intercity bus drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate contrasts with the $37 an hour First Student school bus drivers in Providence now receive in their new contract secured by General Teamsters Local 251.

The APTA report listed several barriers for job seekers interested in public transit careers, including the cost of seeking a commercial driver’s license (CDL). In Rhode Island, that includes a $12.50 application fee, a $72.50 new application fee, expensive training courses, and a test. 

A new bill from Rep. Enrique Sanchez of Providence proposes a CDL fee waiver for RIPTA trained drivers. It would also require the agency to work with the Governor’s Workforce Board and Department of Labor and Training to recruit throughout the state.

“In order to address the shortage of bus workers at RIPTA, our state government has taken the initiative to invest in hiring more staff,” Sanchez said. 

We’re doing everything we possibly can to get more drivers.

– RIPTA Chief of Human Resources Kathy Nadeau

Since October, RIPTA said 133 driver applications were submitted, 102 of them online. 

In addition, six new fixed route drivers transferred from paratransit services since then and six more will rise by May. The agency added 18 new paratransit drivers in February and none in March. 

The process for recruiting and training bus drivers must comply with a contractual obligation with ATU Local 618 requiring drivers spend six to 12 months as van drivers in the transit program for riders with disabilities known as RIde. 

Frequency changes have not caused much of a problem, said Patricia Raub, co-coordinator of Rhode Island Transit Riders, a RIPTA user advocacy organization, said.

“It’s not a major change and to avoid the missed service, it’s worth it,” Raub said. “Given RIPTA’s choices, it made the right choice.”

Some of the lines only saw service changes from every 15 minutes to every 18 minutes, Raub added.

“There are a lot of things I could fault RIPTA on. This isn’t one of them.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.