Portland-area TriMet boosts starting pay to counter severe staffing shortage

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
April 26, 2022 2:48 p.m.

During the pandemic, transit agency TriMet dramatically reduced bus and light-rail service, and hundreds of drivers left as part of a nationwide great resignation.

FILE: A MAX light rail train travels through downtown Portland in November 2019.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

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But now, the transit agency is facing what it calls “its most severe staffing shortage” in history. It needs about 300 new operators, and the lack of drivers has caused delays along some routes.

As a result, TriMet has increased starting pay from about $17 an hour in the fall to more than $25 an hour. That’s the equivalent of a 46% increase.

TriMet spokesman Tyler Graf said applicants don’t have to have a commercial driving license.

“As long as people have a clean driving record we’ll taken them in,” he said. “There have been operators who have PhDs you know, high school diplomas as well, so it really runs the gamut.”

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TriMet’s seven-week training course is fully paid, at the end of which drivers will earn a Commercial Driver License.

“Since last fall we’ve taken steps to reverse the staffing shortage,” said Graf, “which has resulted in more applications coming in. But it hasn’t been enough to reverse the shortage.”

Under an agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, bus drivers can reach a top pay rate of $68,000 after three years of work. They can earn substantially more if they work overtime.

ATU Local 757 spokesman Bill Bradley welcomed the pay increase. He said drivers left for many reasons including: wanting a better work-life balance; too much overtime during the pandemic; retirement; and an uptick in physical and verbal assaults on drivers.

But Bradley pointed out the pay raise is temporary.

“It could be rescinded, should it become ineffective or doesn’t get renewed during bargaining,” Bradley said.

The union expects to start contract negotiations with TriMet at the end of the year.

“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of economic proposals there to continue to make the job attractive,” said Bradley. “And I think that’ll be the work of both parties… to find a way to make this a career for our future members and their future employees.”

People looking for work with TriMet can find more information at trimet.org/drive .

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