Driver shortage hurting public transportation in Johnson County

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind – Some riders who use public buses in Johnson County are having a harder time finding rides due to a driver shortage that started with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Access Johnson County Transportation Director Becky Allen says she hasn’t had a full team of drivers since the pandemic started early last year.

“My last successful hire was in February of 2020,” Allen said.  “And then the COVID hit, and we furloughed people with pay because we wanted all our folks to come back that could.”

More than a year later, Allen’s team of 30 drivers is down to 17.  Allen says many of her drivers were retirees and didn’t come back to work for health reasons, partially influenced by the virus.

“I think Covid still is (a factor),” she said.  “I think those are at risk, even though they’ve got their vaccinations already, I don’t think they’re ready to get out.”

The driver shortage is affecting schedules on Access Johnson County’s fixed routes.  In some cases, buses are running routes every other hour instead of each hour.

“We have not been able to bring the frequency back on U.S. 31,” Allen said.  “And there are days even now, Monday I had to shut down one of the routes in Greenwood.”

The short-handed driving staff is also forcing Access Johnson County to turn down more “dial-a-ride” calls from residents requesting rides from one place to another.

“Last month, for the first time, we had 45 turn-downs in a month,” Allen said.  “Usually it’s about 15.”

Joanna Thompson, who has relied on Access Johnson County buses for more than 8 years, often gets on board near Greenwood Park Mall.  While waiting for a ride on Tuesday, she said she has noticed the change in services.

“I use it to get to my doctor’s appointments down in Franklin, to the hospital where I get labs and stuff all done,” Thompson said.  “We’re not getting there as often as we’d like.  It’s slowing our buses down to the point where they’re just not being able to go as often.”

Allen says other rural transportation companies are in similar situations, struggling to keep a full compliment of drivers.  One challenge they face is a lower pay scale than larger city bus systems.  Starting pay for Access Johnson County drivers is $11 per hour, which can go up to $12 per hour after the first year on the job.  Drivers can work up to 40 hours per week, or as little as one day per week, Allen said.

Rich Hammons, who is medically retired from the Army, is one of the drivers who has stayed behind the wheel for Access Johnson County.  He says the job gives him a sense of giving back to the community.

“Sometimes you get those riders on the bus that, no matter what kind of stuff they’re going through, they manage to put a smile on your face,” Hammons said.  “And it’s really rewarding.”

“A lot of those folks are seniors, folks with disabilities,” Allen said.  “A lot of times we’re  the only ones in their lives.  And it is a great way to give back to your community.”

Access Johnson County is currently accepting applications and scheduling interviews.  Anyone interested in applying can call the Franklin headquarters at 317-738-5523 or email Allen at becky.allen@gatewayarc.com

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