Bus drivers keep quitting even as conditions and pay slowly improve

7:15 am on 5 April 2023
Outline of a person standing in front of a bus

Photo: RNZ / Composite image

It's normal for four or five bus drivers to quit each week, a union leader says. Long days and low pay are at the heart of the problem.

The bus driver shortage blamed for thousands of cancelled buses was a crisis waiting to happen according to unions and the industry body.

Driver vacancies have dropped in Auckland from a peak of more than 500 recorded last year to 369. In Wellington there are 120 vacancies.

Ben McFadgen*, chief executive of the Bus and Coach Association described the depleted ranks of bus drivers as a "slow moving feast" exacerbated by Covid-19.

"There's always been a bus driver situation, actually for as long as I can remember, but it's been particularly acute over the last three or four years."

Before Covid-19, the average age of bus drivers was about 54.

"A lot of them were coming close to retirement and when the lockdowns happened and with being older, they may have felt vulnerable and many decided to leave."

Others returned to their country of birth, "so that made the situation worse," he said. With borders shut during Covid lockdowns, overseas drivers were not able to be recruited.

Covid exacerbated the situation, but we "can't keep blaming Covid for this problem," said Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt, who sees four to five drivers quit the profession every week, many fed up with poor conditions and low pay.

McFadgen agreed pay was an issue and said the degradation of wages has meant few New Zealanders opted to take up the profession.

Who would want to be a bus driver in New Zealand at the moment, McFadgen asked. For most people he imagined the response would be "I'd rather stack shelves at Bunnings for the same wages".

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First Union's researcher and policy analyst Edward Miller put figures on just how much hourly pay has eroded.

"In 1990, the minimum you could pay a bus driver was 66 percent above the minimum wage."

After deregulation of the industry in the 1990s, this plummeted. By 2019 Miller said wages were 10 to 15 percent above minimum wage. Drivers swapped buses for trucks in search of better pay, he said.

To get back to the 66 percent above minimum wage level, hourly pay would need to rise to $35.19 per hour, and $37.86 per hour after the latest minimum wage increases this month. Currently, a bus driver's minimum hourly pay is between $26 to $27 an hour.

The policy which created a pay crunch

The Public Transport Operating Model, introduced by the National-led government in 2013 gets some of the blame for the stagnation of drivers' hourly pay.

In considering what bus company to award a tender to, councils were required to put 60 percent of the weighting on cost.

Roughly half of the cost of running a bus service is labour. Operators paying staff less were at an advantage and those paying drivers more were forced to look for cost savings to compete.

"It meant that those higher cost operators when they would go into collective bargaining would be desperate to try and claw back conditions and reduce the cost of their overall operation," First Union's Miller said.

Wages shifted up in 2023 and may increase again.

In Auckland, figures supplied to Auckland Transport from bus companies showed the base hourly pay rate shifted from $23.71 in June 2022, to $26.87 in September. The minimum wage in New Zealand was $21.20 before rising to $22.70 this month. The living wage is $23.65.

Auckland Transport hopes to raise rates to $30 per hour this year, with the help of a $61 million package over four years announced by the government in October 2022 to raise wages. The government's expectation is urban driver wages rise to $30 per hour, but it expected councils and companies to chip in.

Wellington drivers' pay increased to an average of $30 per hour on April 1.

The push to close to $30 an hour is necessary if companies hope to bring drivers in from overseas. In order to be eligible for entry under the immigration pathway, drivers recruited from 27 February must be paid $29.66 per hour, which is more than many drivers in New Zealand currently receive.

The increases put the hourly pay rate on par with truck driving jobs, although trucking rates at higher levels of licence remain higher.

'They'll never see their family'

Driver conditions remain a sticking point.

New recruits are among the four to five drivers Auckland Tramways Union's president Gary Froggatt sees quit the profession weekly, with many people only working for two years before moving on.

He said hours are one of the big issues. The Land Transport Act allows drivers to work 13 hour days. Adding two half hour meal breaks takes a day up to 14 hours long. Throw in the commute to and from work and a typical day could be 16 hours.

"People are not going to put up with that. Those long hours, they'll never see their family."

Split shifts, where a driver is paid to work the morning peak, then has a four hour unpaid break in the middle of the day before working the evening peak is another problem. Many drivers live too far from depots to return home during the enforced break. These become dead hours, where drivers in limbo between shifts read books, or just sit around.

Greater Wellington Regional Council transport committee chair Thomas Nash said the council was investigating if more off-peak services could be added to reduce split shifts.

"We know that there are drivers out there who would be keen to work but don't want to work split shifts."

Paying drivers for the downtime is another possibility thanks to the $61m, although he added the caveat it was "a work in progress".

Driver safety has also come under scrutiny as drivers report being assaulted on the job.

ACC data for claims made by drivers of city buses show a sharp rise from 2021. These numbers only include drivers who required time off or treatment due to the assault.

Trials are underway to provide barriers to protect drivers, said Auckland Transport metro optimisation manager Richard Harrison. "It's a horrible thing to have to deal with, but it's a real concern people have to face."

The trials involve two buses; a single and double decker said First Union Organiser Hayley Courtney. She didn't know how it would be decided if the trial was successful, or how long it might take to get barriers in all buses. "Nobody really knows, they keep having internal conversations and we're getting nowhere very quickly."

The future

An immigration pathway opened up for bus drivers has helped the situation but it was a slow fix to a big problem, even if companies can offer the hourly rate of $29.66 now required for applicants.

"There's a bit of a vetting process to go through," said McFadgen. Applicants need to have the right sort of licence to drive heavy vehicles, and they need to be able to hold a P endorsement to be allowed to carry passengers. This involves proving they don't have a criminal history, major traffic offences, or excessive accident rate.

"It's up to the applicant to do a lot of the work themselves and supply the information and that means going to their local traffic authority and getting the record and presenting it to Waka Kotahi."

In some cases local authorities took up to six months to supply this.

Once applicants do get the paperwork they need, there's still a lag before they can hit the road, said Auckland Transport's Harrison.

"They've got to arrange flights and accommodation, then they've got to settle people, then they've got to arrange training groups, which you don't want to have more than 20 or so at a time so that you can train them properly and the road rules and how to operate a bus safely."

Filling the depleted ranks at some Auckland bus companies would likely take five to six months, he said.

McFadgen wanted to see the profession beat Bunnings as a career option and to be valued as something which requires a high level of skill. "A lot of the drivers do really enjoy it," he said.

"There's a sense of stewardship, they've got 50 or 60 people on a bus and particularly driving it around Wellington streets, you've got to be able to park the damn thing on a postage stamp."

* McFadgen was chief executive of the Bus and Coach Association when interviewed by RNZ for this story in February. He has since left the organisation.