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Port Authority Needs More Than 100 Drivers And 60 Maintenance Workers

Margaret Sun
90.5 WESA

Port Authority will hold a job fair Downtown on Friday as the agency tries to fill 60 maintenance positions and more than 100 driver positions. While officials say the number of applications to work for the agency is actually up, they’re battling a nationwide labor shortage as well as a number of challenges unique to Port Authority.

Mike Heidkamp, chief operating officer for transportation, said the hiring process for both departments can take a long time: the training period for bus operators is 10 weeks; for maintenance staff, it is 24 days, soon to go up to 32 days.

But that’s only after potential hires pass a background check, a drug screening, and a medical clearance. In order to apply for a commercial drivers license through PennDOT, Heidkamp said applicants with a “certain-sized neck or above have to have a sleep study done … and that’s a tough ask for someone who’s unemployed, because that’s usually a $900 price tag.”

During that start-up period, Port Authority can lose people to other job offers.

Heidkamp started as an operator with Port Authority almost 28 years ago. In all his time with the agency, he said they’ve never had the number of bus operators provided for in the budget; shortages are the norm. But he said the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult.

In the early days of the pandemic, the agency briefly put a stop to in-person training programs, and when they were able to reopen, maintained smaller class sizes. In addition, people who were eligible to retire but under normal circumstances may have stayed on the job for several more years decided to leave.

“I had operators that said, ‘I’m not dealing with this, I’m leaving.’ They were just that nervous driving during a pandemic,” Heidkamp said.

Four operators have died of COVID-19.

Don Rivetti is the chief operating officer for maintenance. His department is responsible for repairing and cleaning the buses and said while they’ve had people retire, it wasn’t due to a fear of the coronavirus.

“It’s just been a slow process to get skilled jobs [such as mechanics] filled,” he said. Heidkamp said it can be hard to compete with the private market, noting that while someone just starting on rail maintenance with Port Authority would make $21 or $22 an hour, they may be making $32 an hour right now working for the railroads.

Other people suggest that if Port Authority removed tiers in the pay scale so workers could more quickly reach top earnings, the agency would be more attractive to workers in a labor market where it’s now possible to earn $20 per hour as a manager at McDonald’s.

Rivetti said it may take a few years to earn the top wage with Port Authority, but “in the long run, it’s a good company to work for … we have to try to get them to look past the progression and show them the other benefits of the company,” such as health care and a pension.

A prolonged labor shortage could have terrible repercussions, said Laura Chu Wiens, who leads advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“This is about one of the essential pieces of our social infrastructure,” she said. “If we cannot fill 100 positions then service is likely to be cut, riders are going to be left at the stop, riders that include school children.”

Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said the agency is working to safely and responsibly speed up the hiring process, and noted that a couple years ago the agency “banned the box,” meaning officials no longer ask about applicants’ criminal backgrounds.

In addition, Brandolph said Port Authority is “doing everything possible to avoid any sort of service reductions,” but it may reduce trip frequency.

“It benefits nobody if a route is scheduled to arrive every 20 minutes if we can’t make that,” he said. “We’d rather reduce frequency to every 30 minutes and know that we can make that schedule reliably.”

Friday’s job fair will begin at 10 a.m. in person at 304 Wood Street or online via Microsoft Teams. Details can be found on the agency's Twitter and Facebook pages.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.