OPINION: Did UTA not hire me as a bus driver because I don’t own a car?

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Earlier this year, I experienced firsthand what it’s like to be inconvenienced by the bus driver shortage when bus trips that I intended to ride on were being canceled due to a lack of drivers. 

As a long-time transit advocate who depends heavily on transit to get where I need to go, UTA is dear to my heart. So it’s frustrating and disruptive when UTA has to cancel trips due to a shortage of operators. 

This got me wondering whether the issue was the inability of the Utah Transit Authority to pay drivers a competitive wage or whether there were deeper issues. I decided to apply to become a UTA bus driver.

After my interview experience, I’m convinced there are deeper issues at play that the agency needs to figure out.

Honestly, I wondered whether I’d even be considered given the fact that I have a master’s degree.  But I was given the opportunity to interview and learned firsthand how truly antiquated and draconian UTA’s hiring practices have become.

The reasons why UTA is struggling to hire and retain new bus drivers were evident to me after reading page five of the bus operator information packet UTA sent over before the interview: “This position can be challenging for many people. Days off are not consecutive, schedules change daily, and Operators are expected to work split shifts. Bus Operators are expected to be on time to every shift, and we have a strict no-fault policy on punctuality.”

Right away, prospective operators are told to expect shifts that can be inconvenient to their personal lives. That may not be unique to UTA as transit agencies have to get creative with scheduling to keep the system running on time.

But when the agency started questioning my personal means of transportation, it made me wonder whether some of UTA’s struggles are of its own doing.

To give myself the full experience (and since I haven’t owned a car in over six years), I rode UTA to the interview. Unfortunately, there was a kerfuffle causing significant TRAX delays, which caused me to be 10 minutes late to the interview. 

The receptionist informed me that UTA has a strict policy of never interviewing a candidate for an operator position who arrives late. No exceptions. 

Lucky for me, UTA made an exception after I told the HR scheduler why I was late, and we set up an interview for the following day.  The scheduler informed me that I should plan on arriving two hours early if I intended to ride UTA to the interview, which is very telling of how UTA’s own HR people view UTA.

I was 10 minutes late for an interview to become a UTA bus driver when TRAX didn’t arrive.

I arrived about a half hour early for the rescheduled interview the next day. The receptionist at the front desk barely acknowledged my existence, and the waiting area felt like how I imagine the booking area at a jail would be. Nothing about the process was welcoming or made me feel like UTA valued me as a potential future employee. Instead, it screamed, “DO NOT WORK HERE!” 

Most of the interview consisted of the typical HR questions regarding how I would handle various on-the-job scenarios, with questions specific to the position toward the end. I would soon discover what would likely disqualify me from becoming a bus driver for UTA.

Interviewers prefaced one question by explaining that — because shifts typically either start before UTA service has started or end after UTA service has ended — bus drivers cannot rely on riding UTA to get to work. The question then asked whether I had reliable transportation with which to get to and from work.

For more than six years, I’ve been living car-free on Salt Lake City’s west side. I get around through a combination of riding my e-bike and riding UTA. When I travel out of state, I try to take Amtrak whenever it’s available and time constraints don’t force me to fly. Once in a while, I do end up needing to rent a car to get to my destination. So, it’s not like I’ve forgotten how to drive or let my license expire. But somehow living a car-free lifestyle doesn’t make for a good employee in the eyes of UTA’s HR staff.

The ensuing discussion revealed that — while “reliable transportation” was not defined on paper — those interviewing me made it clear that reliable transportation meant either owning or having access to a car. No exceptions. 

They made it clear that they did not consider my e-bike to be reliable transportation — despite it being relatively easy for me to bike to both UTA’s Downtown and Meadowbrook bus yards, where I would be starting and ending shifts.

The next day I received a phone call from UTA’s HR staff. I was informed that I was no longer being considered for a position as a bus driver. No specific reason was given. Given the previous day’s interview, I can only assume that UTA doesn’t hire bus operators who don’t have a car.

This experience has made it seem like UTA is failing to adapt to an ever-changing labor market. It is stuck in a past where labor is plentiful, competition is scarce, and employees are expected to work for the same employer for decades before eventually retiring. 

That labor market has long since gone extinct. While the inability of UTA to pay drivers a competitive wage does play a big role in the issue, UTA’s unwelcoming HR environment and archaic bus operations model are the real culprits. 

It shouldn’t matter how UTA employees get to work as long as they arrive reliably.

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Posted by Mike Christensen

Mike Christensen recently graduated from the University of Utah with a Master of City and Metropolitan Planning, is employed as the Executive Director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, and serves on the Board of Directors of the national Rail Passengers Association.