Drivers to RTD: I Quit

An RTD driver approaches a bus after raising the vehicle's wheelchair ramp Oct. 23 at Union Station. Photo: Andy Bosselman
An RTD driver approaches a bus after raising the vehicle's wheelchair ramp Oct. 23 at Union Station. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Yesterday, the Regional Transportation District cancelled at least 38 trains, which is the latest round of service disruptions caused by an ongoing driver shortage. The fiasco did not happen overnight but has been building as most of the drivers RTD hired in the last two years have quit. 

“RTD is in crisis,” said Angie Rivera-Malpiede, a member of the agency’s board of directors at last night’s board meeting. Her district covers parts of West Denver and Lakewood.

Dave Genova, RTD’s general manager, put forward a proposal that would cut service to give overworked drivers a break and offer riders more certainty about when the agency’s vehicles will show up. But critics say RTD is a bad place to work, which is why few drivers stick around. 

Since January 2017, RTD hired nearly 1,000 drivers. In that time, nearly all of its train operators have turned over and a majority of its bus drivers, have too, according to Laurie Huff, a spokesperson for RTD. Of train operators, 201 of 216 quit, a 93 percent turnover rate. For bus drivers, 710 of 1,083 left their positions, a 66 percent turnover rate.

“We’ve been hiring very successfully,” said Doug Tisdale, chair of the RTD board. “We have not been retaining successfully. We have not addressed the issues.”

Tough working conditions

The issues for drivers include unruly passengers, infrequent bathroom breaks, hostility from managers and long work hours, said Chris Moralez, a bus operator and vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents drivers. 

“When you’re hired at RTD, they tell you there’s a chance you might have to work your days off,” he said. “The fact is, when you’re hired, you’re working six days a week and 13 hours per day. Period.”

And split shifts, which can have drivers waking at 3 a.m. and working until 7:30 p.m. for weeks at a time, come from managers who are often unkind when drivers ask for time off, he said. 

“They sigh at you. They can’t understand why you want a day off,” said Morales. “Why do you want to take care of your sick child? Why do you want just a day off?” they ask. 

RTD managers also give grief to drivers for making mistakes. 

“Let’s say you make a wrong turn,” he said. “They talk to you in a derogatory way.”

And when the agency adjusts its routes four times per year, it often fails to allow time for bathroom breaks, especially when normal conditions like boarding wheelchair users and traffic can put a driver behind schedule. 

“You get to the end. You’re running late, and you go in to use the restroom,” said Morales. “You come out and your supervisor asks you why you’re taking so long.” 

RTD also asks drivers to enforce policies that frustrate customers, like requiring strollers to be folded before boarding and checking service animals for rabies tags. 

“You deal with the public,” says Morales. “Not all of the public is grateful for what we do and how we do it.”  

Transit riders stuck

Cancellations like those yesterday have become common in recent years, which can make people late for work or stranded without an alternative. And they come with little notice. 

“I appreciate the Rider Alert emails,” wrote a twitter user August 7. “But two minutes before departure…?” 

Board members irked

RTD’s proposal to cut service left many of the agency’s elected directors seething with anger.

“This rush to cut service, I find it very disappointing,” said Director Vince Buzek, whose district includes Westminster, Northglenn and Federal Heights. “I look at it as a failure.” 

But Director Jeff Walker, whose district covers parts of South Denver, Lakewood and Littleton, says the cuts could give riders timetables they can count on. 

“I’ve been left at the stop several times waiting for that bus that hasn’t shown,” he said. “That schedule should be gospel.” 

Doug Tisdale, chair of the agency’s board, said that any service changes related to the driver shortage must be temporary. 

“We definitely need to set a sunset for this,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘trust us’ and at some point this will go.” 

RTD staff will present a more detailed service cut proposal at the agency’s November 12 board meeting. 

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