We’re happy to announce that we’ve hired, trained, and deployed the 1,000th new Metro transit operator since February 2022, when we temporarily cut back bus service by 10% in the face of the Omicron Variant and a steep transit operator shortage.
After making those temporary cuts, Metro got to work on a plan to restore bus service quickly by recruiting hundreds of new operators to our ranks. The hiring surge enabled us to restore those cuts and return to our full pre-pandemic level of Metro bus service in December 2022. The hiring surge also helped us to drive down weekday service cancellation rates to between 1-3% as of April 2023, and increase bus ridership by 13% in the first quarter of 2023. Our hiring and training of new bus operators continues so that we keep our operator numbers complete to maintain reliable service.
“We’d like to thank our loyal Metro bus riders, who bore with us throughout 2022 as we worked to stabilize our service, recruit more operators, and reduce service cancellations,” said Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of Metro. “We’d also like to thank the dedicated team of Metro professionals who worked to recruit, train, deploy, and welcome so many new transit operators to the Metro family, and the team who led us through all the changes to bus schedules and deployments throughout the year, and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) Union for their partnership. Also, a big shout out to our bus operators who have worked long hours and many extra days to maximize the service available each day for our riders.”
Flashback: January 2022
Bus riders account for nearly 80% of systemwide ridership and things were not looking good for the Metro bus system in late 2021. Weekday cancellation rates had surged to over 15% and the brunt of those cancellations were occurring in South LA and the Gateway Cities, communities where many people rely on transit service. Transit operators were calling out at high rates as the Omicron Variant caused coronavirus cases countywide to surge to the highest numbers recorded during the pandemic. At one point, Metro had less than 3,100 bus operators available to run bus service around the clock with a daily need to pull out over 1,600 buses. The only way we were able to run the system was to call more than 800 operators in on their days off to cover needed shifts. What’s more, operator hiring had stalled. Our starting wage for operators at the time was $17.75/hr., and the high risk of catching the virus in a public facing role combined with rising inflation likely kept some potential recruits from joining our ranks.
In January 2022, the CEO announced the need to temporarily cut 700,000 annualized revenue service hours (RSH) from the bus system to enable us to stabilize service while we recruited and trained more new bus operators. Recognizing that not all neighborhoods and regions of the county were affected by cancellations equally, Metro informed the Board that the temporary cuts would be made strategically throughout the network with an equity lens using the NextGen framework. This allowed us to implement the cuts throughout the region by making minor adjustments in scheduled levels of service, while retaining additional trips on high cancellation lines in equity focus communities (EFCs) where transit ridership was highest.
Though Metro sought to minimize the impact of the temporary service cut on our riders, we knew that any service cut would make life more difficult for our bus patrons, many of whom rely exclusively on Metro for their transportation. We needed to restore that service as quickly as possible. That said, we also knew that it’d be a bad idea to restore service before we were ready. There’s nothing worse than promising something that you can’t deliver, so we decided to add back service we’d cut in smaller chunks, to ensure we could deliver on our promises. Before each chunk of service was added back to the system:
- The number of active COVID cases needed to be below 30 per week,
- The rate of service cancellation (before adding any service back) needed to be approaching its historical average of 2%,
- The number of shifts covered by operators working on their days off (before adding any service back) needed to be trending down, ideally below 200 per week, and
- We need to have hired and trained enough operators to restore that chunk of service.
We had our work cut out for us.
Recruitment Efforts Begin in Earnest
Transit operators are the beating heart of Metro. These highly trained professionals operate enormous equipment through the busiest parts of our region, dealing with often stressful traffic jams and the everyday hustle and bustle of LA County. Being a transit operator is a tough job, but in return, Metro offers good, steady pay, great benefits, and excellent pathways for career growth.
By February 2022, we estimated that we needed to, at a minimum, hire, train, and deploy 800 full time bus and rail operators to restore the service we had just cut. 800 was the baseline goal, but we knew we needed to hire many more than that to account for everyday callouts, long-term leave, time off, and expected retirements. We also knew that the training to become a transit operator is extensive, and not everyone would pass our rigorous training course, which is designed to keep our riders, employees, and the public safe. We had our work cut out for us, and the first thing we worked on was recruitment.
Starting pay for Metro transit operators in January 2022 was $17.75/hr. That pay level was failing to attract enough people to the profession, so the CEO authorized a temporary raise starting pay to $19.12/hr. while Metro and the SMART Union negotiated on a broader pay and benefit package. We also offered a $3,000 signing bonus to new operators, which was available to them after they successfully completed the hiring and training process. We partnered with area Community Colleges to hold large hiring fairs for bus operators, and streamlined our hiring process so that conditional offers of employment could be made in as little as one day. We also expanded operator training classes from 25 in February to 85 in March 2022, and 125 in June 2022. While we made many conditional offers of employment at those job fairs, not everyone was able to make it to and through our rigorous 8-week safety and operations training. By June 2022, we had hired, trained, and deployed 150 new transit operators and reduced ordered call backs by about half – but we still needed to hire, train, and deploy many more operators to fully restore Metro service.
Raising Starting Pay & Retention Bonuses
After successful contract negotiations with the SMART Union, Metro was able to raise starting pay to $23.00 for all operators in August 2022. The agreement also changed work rules which enabled us to hire full-time bus operators. Before this agreement, new bus operators were required to start in part-time positions until full-time positions became available. After the agreement, Metro was able to extend full-time positions to new recruits and move more part-time operators to full time, allowing us to staff up more quickly and provide new staff the full-time work most were looking for. This helps with retention.
“The agreement between the SMART Union and Metro was truly a history maker for our members and the agency,” said John M. Ellis, General Chairman of SMART. “It sent a clear message to transit operators that they are valued and appreciated, and I’m glad that it was instrumental in retaining existing operators at Metro and recruiting new people to the profession.”
The SMART Union and Metro also agreed to give one-time retention bonuses of up to $2,500 to all operators who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. What’s more, we made it easier to climb the compensation ladder upon satisfactory performance. The new contract was a big boon to operator hiring, recruitment, and retention efforts.
Bienvenidos a Metro
Recognizing that applicants’ English fluency could be a barrier to their employment at Metro, in March 2022, the Metro Board endorsed a plan to amplify Metro’s efforts to recruit bus and rail operators that speak Spanish as their first language through the Bienvenidos a Metro program. The program has led to the hiring, training, and deployment of more than 100 new bilingual Metro transit operators.
Through the Bienvenidos a Metro program, we not only worked to translate our application and training materials, but we also partnered with the LA Unified School District’s Adult Education program to recruit English as a Second Language (ESL) students to the profession. We also expanded our recruitment and outreach to Spanish speaking communities through a variety of community based and advertising strategies.
The Bienvenidos a Metro program not only helps us to expand our applicant pool but having bilingual operators is also helpful to our Spanish speaking customers. According to our 2022 Customer Experience survey, about 42% of our riders speak Spanish at home.
While Metro’s bus service has now been fully restored to its pre-pandemic levels and cancellation rates are near their historic averages, we aren’t yet done. We still need to fill more positions, we still are calling in too many people on their days off to cover shifts, and we need to keep up the pace of hiring to keep up with retirements. But there’s no doubt – the collaborative and coordinated efforts across the agency to recruit, hire, train, and deploy transit operators across our system have been a great success so far and have definitely improved service for our riders.