Avoiding Delays and Cancellations due to Employee Absences

Rob Snyder
March 8, 2019

      In the face of a nationwide bus driver shortage, city transit system managers report going to extreme lengths: Hiring sprees and apprenticeship programs are being implemented as fast as humanly possible to try to get drivers hired and trained, fast. Even fully staffed transit operations are finding themselves shorthanded last-minute: Employee sick days have been cited as a main culprit of New Jersey’s route cancellation spree in 2018.

Whether your transit system is understaffed because there were more absences than standby operators, or because your drivers are retiring faster than you’re hiring, the results are catastrophic:

     - At best, your system faces delays as you frantically make calls to fill shifts.
     - At worst, you face last-minute route cancellations.

Plus, frequent understaffing wreaks havoc on your internal staff. Dispatch is swamped with shifts they need to fill ASAP (according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, in many cases). Your help center is overwhelmed with customer complaints. Transit managers field calls from angry City Councillors and local press. The stress is felt through the entire organization.

So how are city transit systems solving their short-staffing problems? Here are four effective solutions:

Solution 1: Ramp up hiring

     Clearly, one way to handle short-staffing is to increase your number of staff. But everyone is trying to do this - right now, Greyhound is offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus for new bus drivers. In a shortage, some systems are innovating due to the lack of CDL-certified drivers, introducing apprenticeship programs. Any innovations, though, cannot sacrifice quality and safety. As mentioned earlier, full staffing isn’t the full solution, as many instances of short-staffing are caused by employee absences. That’s where solution 2 comes into play:

Solution 2: Increase standby on-duty staffing

       Another option for transit systems is to increase their on-duty standby staff. These staff provide a crucial role for transit systems, as they can instantly be plugged into routes when drivers are absent. However, many transit managers find it difficult to continually increase their standby staff, because when unutilized, they are paid for not working. In a financially troubled industry, where only 2% of major operators make profit - adding costs is politically fraught.

Solution 3: Attendance incentives

      A very low-tech way to make progress on absenteeism is to offer “perfect attendance” bonuses. Because absenteeism is so costly to your transit system, offering employees bonuses for perfect attendance more than pays off. This has been attempted to some success in city transit operations around the country - however, it may require negotiation and union approval for implementation.

So what can transit managers do when their hiring processes aren’t fast enough, yet they can’t continue to increase standby staff or unilaterally implement good-attendance policies? Solutions 4 and 5 are solutions that don’t require significant additional staffing, and can be implemented quickly.

Solution 4: Automate backfilling process

       When there are more absences than standby operators, a mad dash ensues - dispatch begins making calls, and doesn’t stop until an operator is confirmed. In unionized operations, there are often strict rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement governing how these shifts should be offered. These rules ensure fair distribution, but often slow down the shift-filling process. (Not to mention grievances as a result of offering shifts out-of-compliance.) Fortunately, this manual, stressful, and time-consuming process can be automated. Systems like SYRG can be customized to follow your Collective Bargaining Agreement, calling operators in the correct order and generating reports to satisfy the union.

Plus, automated solutions are able to fill shifts much faster than your dispatch team - they can call multiple employees for different shifts all at once, increasing productivity by a factor of 10. If your system can’t hire more staff quickly enough and can’t increase standby staff, an automated backfill process is the most reliable way to avoid understaffing and reduce unnecessary delays and cancellations.

Solution 5: Build “casual driver pool”

     Finally, some transit systems employ casual workers - for example, former drivers who are retirees and may want to pick up a route for extra income now and again. This is often supported by the union, and is an effective way to build the network of drivers and operators who can work a particular shift so you get closer to 100% shifts filled, and 0% absence-driven delays and cancellations.

Interested in an automated backfill process that works across your entire workforce? We’re designed to be implemented fast, so transit systems can quickly fill shifts and focus on delivering excellent, safe, and reliable service.

Let’s talk: info@syrg.app

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