Is the answer to Denver’s worsening transit woes to cut back on services until things can stabilize — and before they spiral out of control?
That’s the argument made by Regional Transportation District staff at a board meeting on Tuesday, October 22. Their plan, which has quietly been in the works for months, would temporarily suspend “a significant amount of service” in order to cope with the transit agency’s ongoing driver and operator shortage.
“Today I was counting the number of dropped trips on the rider alerts, and I got up to about 23 and quit counting,” RTD general manager Dave Genova told the board. “That doesn’t happen on a daily basis, but it’s happening fairly regularly. So it’s problematic for our ability to deliver service.”
RTD’s proposal for service cuts aims to address what agency leadership says is a critical problem for staff recruitment and retention: the practice of “mandating,” or forced overtime. Because of persistent shortages, many of RTD’s drivers and operators have been forced to work six days a week for several years running.
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“The feedback we’re getting is that mandating is the number-one issue,” said Heather McKillop, RTD’s chief financial officer. “We do exit interviews, and we hear that repeatedly — that it has to do with not being able to go to doctor’s appointments, not being able to attend their children’s functions on a regular basis, having to cancel functions with their family.”
Mandating is not only making the agency’s staffing problems worse, Genova told board members Tuesday — it’s harming drivers and possibly leading to increased safety risks.
“Over the last number of months, we’ve seen an increasing amount of call-ins, an increasing amount of on-the-job injuries, an increase in family medical leave, and we believe that mandating is one reason that could be driving that,” Genova said.
RTD staff did not outline the specifics of their plan for service cuts, which they’re expected to formally unveil at a board meeting on November 12. But in order to significantly reduce the 22,408 hours of service provided by mandated or “6th day” operators last month, the cuts will likely have to be steep.
Board members appear split on the proposal. Some signaled reluctant support for temporary cuts, noting that mandating and staffing shortages are already leading to dropped service. But others questioned whether the agency had sufficiently studied possible alternatives.
“No other options were discussed in this paper,” said board member Vince Buzek. “I want to see a hundred other things we’ve tried before we start cutting service in a significant fashion.”
ATU Local 1001, the union that represents RTD drivers, opposes the proposed service cuts, and argues that working conditions — including things as simple as bathroom breaks — are a bigger factor in the agency’s staffing woes.
“You’re not fixing the problem,” says Local 1001 vice president Chris Moralez. “They could make the cuts they want to make, but the problem is still going to be there. The retention issue is still going to be an issue.”
Under a new collective bargaining agreement signed in 2018, RTD drivers received a 10 percent raise in base pay, improved benefits and other guarantees. But board members and management acknowledged at Tuesday’s meeting that the agency has more work to do to create a better environment for its employees.
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“It’s not just the mandating,” said chief operating officer Michael Ford. “It’s making people feel more valued, more connected to the organization. Even if we do make some [cuts], we’re going to still need to up our game on how we keep people here.”
RTD hasn’t yet said when the proposed service cuts would take effect, but Genova said Tuesday that they wouldn’t necessarily have to adhere to the agency’s typical schedule of “run boards,” a process through which service changes are made in January, May and August of each year — though like all service changes, the plan would still have to be negotiated with the union.
Board chair Doug Tisdale stressed that any proposal for cuts should come with a sunset provision to automatically restore service by a certain date. And several members urged RTD staff to conduct a thorough outreach process before making a formal proposal.
“I really want us to think about not coming back to the board with a proposal that’s solely from staff,” said board member Shontel Lewis. “Let’s talk to our stakeholders, let’s talk to the union, let’s talk to those who ride the bus. Let’s go out and talk to communities before we make a decision.”