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Bus operators are in high demand to fill openings with Miami-Dade County

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Verónica Zaragovia
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Jaime Sanchez has been a bus operator with Miami-Dade County for about 20 years.

Transit systems across the U.S. are experiencing a severe shortage of bus operators, including Miami-Dade County. The county is losing 18 drivers each month.

Some bus operators are retiring, others are moving on to opportunities outside the county or other promotions within the county.

Miami-Dade has efforts underway to recruit new employees like Jhony Barona. He is one of 32 people who earned a certificate to become a Miami-Dade County bus operator last month.

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Verónica Zaragovia
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Ruth Sanchez, holding her phone at far right, and Jhony Barona, behind her, get ready to receive their certificate on Aug. 12, 2022 after finishing a training program to become bus operators with Miami-Dade County.

"I feel really, really amazing. I’m feeling so good, because every bus operator, every trainee, has a different story," Barona said. "When I come here to Miami, I start to work in construction, I work in McDonalds — in different places like everybody here that want opportunities in this country with the American Dream."

He moved to South Florida from Colombia and then pointed to his friend, Ruth Sanchez, from Peru.

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"She come here and she learned English," he said. "She is the number one in the class, so I’m very proud because she’s my friend. She’s my best friend."

Trainees learn how to operate the bus, plus customer service and go through federal requirements.

Ruth Sanchez told WLRN she got the idea to look for jobs with Miami-Dade after seeing County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava on TV.

This time, Sanchez saw Levine Cava up close. The mayor came to speak to the new class of bus drivers directly at their graduation ceremony in downtown Miami.

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Verónica Zaragovia
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Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava speaks at a graduation ceremony for a class of bus operations trainees on Aug. 12, 2022.

"I’ve been desperate for you," Levine Cava said to the graduates from a podium at at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. "We need you so much in Miami-Dade County. We need you to get our people where they need to go."

The county wants to hire 200 bus operators to launch the Better Bus Network, designed to have more frequent service, create easier connections, and improve midday, evening, and weekend bus service. Because of staffing shortages, the launch this year has been delayed.

"Soon as we hire the number of operators that we need, we will have those new those routes with added frequency," said Eulois Cleckley, the director and chief executive officer of the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works, to WLRN.

Cleckley said that the county is struggling to find applicants who can make it through the training process to get hired. "Really, you have to figure out how to get more people who are interested in the job, that have the capability of actually passing all the requirements that are necessary for it, too."

To try to speed up the hiring of new drivers, the county is offering a $500 referral bonus to existing employees who get new operators in, and new hires get $2,500 after finishing the training program and six months on the job, then another $2,500 after 18 months.

To pay those bonuses, the county’s tapping into its operational budget that includes money for bus operator salaries, since there are so many vacancies.

"We realized that the trends were not going in the right direction, that we were losing more people than we were hiring," Cleckley said. "We have started to see results in that our past two training classes have been the highest that we've had in the past year, and the training class that we have coming up has approximately 40 new trainees that will be a part of that class."

Those bonuses don’t impress Jeffery Mitchell, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 291, though. To him, the starting salary of $16.81 before overtime is too low, and he says the county needs to focus on how much they earn.

"You're in a petri dish all day long, stressful condition and this is what they think I'm worth," Mitchell said.

The job comes with a lot of responsibilities, he added — bringing up the 40-foot vehicle one drives with lives to protect inside and outside and riders can be difficult. Without higher pay, people will apply to work for Amazon or UPS, he added.

He does want people to consider this job — Mitchell said he's been able to send his daughter to college out of Florida in upstate New York and had accompanied her there a few days before this interview.

"I'm a transit worker, you know what I mean? It's a middle class job — it's a career, it's not just a job," he said. "It's a career that you can stay in. I've been in transit for 30 years, plus."

Mitchell listed other benefits, which for full-time bus operators include a uniform, health and disability insurance, paid holidays, vacation and sick leave, tuition reimbursement and career advancement within the Department of Transit and Public Works and other county departments.

Jaime Sanchez has been a bus operator with the county for about 20 years. He added another perk – though not a financial one.

"When the passenger gets off the bus and says thank you," Sanchez said. "Even when they getting off from the back door. They just say it from over there — ‘Thank you, driver!’ It makes you feel good because you feel like you’re doing your job correctly, you know?"

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Verónica Zaragovia
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Jaime Sanchez has been a bus operator with Miami-Dade County for about 20 years.

"I love it because I get to help the community, especially the elderlies," Sanchez said. "We usually kneel the bus for them, because they usually come in with walkers or a wheelchair or people with disabilities. We have passengers who are blind and we open the door and tell them this is the route and ask them if this is the route that they need. There are a lot of things we can do to help the community."

Passengers should call 311 for questions on how to get to their destination, but sometimes drivers answer these questions if they can.

Franklin Brown has been a bus operator with Miami-Dade County for 26 years. "You don't have a boss on your back all day," he said. "You can drive in different areas throughout the county in any given day."

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Verónica Zaragovia
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Franklin Brown has been a bus operator with Miami-Dade County for 26 years.

Brown added that if someone enjoys working — the opportunities to work overtime add up in the paycheck.

Because Brown and Jaime Sanchez have been long-time bus operators, they get to choose their routes and shifts.

Chris Van Eyken recommends that transit systems let new bus drivers have a say in their routes and shifts, too. He is a program manager at TransitCenter, which is a New York-based foundation focused on improving public transportation.

"It puts the burden on driving the hardest routes at the hardest times on the newest workers, and it leads to them burning out more quickly," said Van Eyken.

Younger drivers might have children or elderly parents of their own to care for after work.

TransitCenter published a report in July with ideas for solutions to the major bus driver shortages seen around the country — including access to bathrooms during their shifts.

"Bus operators tend to be Black and brown folks," Van Eyken said. "So the  deterioration of this job has meant that what was once a reliable steppingstone into the middle class isn't as reliable as it once was."

Miami-Dade County has job fairs once a month through December. Jeffery Mitchell with the union says the county should go to high school graduations and football games, and post openings on TikTok — to bring in younger drivers as many retire.

Eulois Cleckley with the Department of Transportation and Public Works acknowledged the need to stand out from other employers.

"Everybody is hiring from kind of the same pool of available candidates," Cleckley said. "So CDL [commercial driver's license] operators have the opportunity to drive a bus for us, but they can go drive for private industry, UPS, FedEx, Amazon. So we're competing with those different type of private operators and other municipalities. What we're saying is that we not only are competitive, we're best in class."

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care for the station. Verónica has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master's degree in journalism. For many years, Veronica lived out of a suitcase (or two) in New York City, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, D.C., San Antonio and Austin, where she worked as the statehouse and health care reporter with NPR member station KUT.