The Detroit Department of Transportation is struggling to retain bus drivers. City officials are hoping bonuses will make them want to stay.
Mayor Mike Duggan says the dozens of job vacancies have resulted in a budget surplus. DDOT has 90 openings and is operating at 82% of its needed workforce, according to city officials.
Duggan is asking Detroit City Council to approve $2 million to fund bonuses for DDOT bus drivers. With this proposal, drivers could receive an annual pre-tax bonus of $4,000 for good attendance.
DDOT bus drivers currently make between $32,000 and $46,000. During the pandemic, they held multiple strikes over wages and safety concerns from COVID-19 and general threats of violence from passengers.
“It is a difficult job,” Transit Director Mikel Oglesby says. “Being a bus operator you have to be able to drive the bus, you have to be customer service, you have to be security. It’s a lot to it. But it’s a great job.”
Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union – Local 26 say coach operators are leaving for better-paying opportunities outside the city’s transit system.
“We’ve been losing membership to SMART. We’ve been losing membership to Ann Arbor,” says Glenn Tolbert, the outgoing president of Detroit’s bus drivers union. “And this [proposal] will definitely help us to recruit, bring some people on the payroll as we work … to try to fight to get the pay up.”
Last year, Detroit agreed to a new bus drivers contract, but wage issues remain. Union leadership is pushing for pay raises to make DDOT wages more competitive with the rest of the region.
“You have to compete for employees,” says Schetrone Collier, the incoming bus driver’s union president.
Most bus routes were cut late in 2021. DDOT officials are planning to reverse some of the temporary changes, but public transit activists believe Detroit bus riders deserve better service.
“Residents right now are dealing with routes that are infrequent, are unreliable,” says transit advocate Renard Monczunski. “This is the crucial first step in addressing that.”
If approved, DDOT officials say the bonuses will allow the system to increase frequency on some of its busiest lines. And if hiring improves, they say DDOT as a whole will get better.