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An Ocean City bus driver heads in to his seat inside of a bus parked at the 144th Street terminal. Officials are taking steps to recruit and retain more people to drive buses to ensure there are enough working during the summer season.

After a summer of public bus crowding and delays because of a covid-related driver shortage, Ocean City officials are taking a proactive approach to improve the staffing situation for 2022.

“We are right on the edge of starting our major recruitment efforts for the coming season and we need to know what we are offering and what we are not offering,” Public Works Director Hal Adkins said during a transportation committee meeting last week before presenting an array of options to help broaden the help-wanted solicitation’s appeal.

Committee members ultimately agreed to authorize $15,600 to reimburse out-of-state applicants for their driving records and up to $75 for physical exams, and to provide funding for applicants to obtain learners permits.

Adkins explained that anyone who applies for a bus driver position must submit a copy of his or her driving record, And while they are free for Maryland applicants, applicants from Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states must pay for them. He also said the Maryland Department of Transportation requires physicals, which can be costly as well, and that several applicants a year undergo training.

“Those are three great low-hanging fruit, easy things to discuss and decide on,” Adkins said.

The options, and several others not specific to transportation applicants, derived from a recent meeting with members of a task force directed to address retention and recruitment challenges within all city departments.

City Manager Doug Miller, who heads the group, said “no bad ideas” were shared and that members are set to meet again before the transportation committee’s next meeting on Jan. 11 to determine whether they can provide more incentives.

Other potential offerings include financial incentives for early applicants and season-long commitments, and enticements for employees to work nights, weekends and special events, among others. Adkins said those incentives may be trickier to offer because of the potential to create waves in other departments.

“I know historically if certain things are offered there is the potential for internal equity concerns and there’s concern for ripple effects and negativity that could come about from other non-DPW departments, that one is offered something and another department is not,” he said.

Mayor Rick Meehan, who sits on the transportation committee, urged Miller to push the task force members to come up with clear answers for what can and cannot be offered before Jan. 11.

“I think we all recognize we’d rather do something now and be proactive, something that we think will have a benefit than to try and do something reactive later that could cost us more money and lose [hiring opportunities],” Meehan said. “We’re better off to do it the right way at the very beginning and not just be reactive.”

City officials also recently approved a pay bump for seasonal employees, which will bring hourly wages for bus drivers up to $18.84 on Jan. 1, 2023, two years before the pay scale initially intended. And while Adkins said the increase will most certainly help with recruitment, he has concerns if staffing issues remain across the resort overall.

“I’ll sum it up by saying, do we feel $17.75 will capture a number of individuals, of applicants, for our hiring? Yes we do,” he said. “Are we cautiously concerned whether it will get us to whatever the number is, whether that’s 100 people, 120 people, whatever? We’re concerned.”

He explained that a lack of housing options for employees across the town could have businesses and other organizations essentiality pulling from the pool of workers who would be driving buses.

Other committee members pointed out that it may not be as big of a concern because the demographic for bus drivers – mainly older individuals looking to work part-time in retirement – are not interested in other seasonal jobs.

With that, Meehan suggested that efforts should be made to reach other groups of people for bus driver jobs.

“We really need to put an emphasis on that … other age groups taking that particular kind of job,” he said.

Adkins said recruitment packages with all the necessary hiring information for bus drivers will be available Jan. 17 and applicants are expected to begin returning them around Feb. 1.

Transportation Manager Steve Bartlett said 38 bus drivers are on the city’s roster for the off-season. Over the summer, he said the total reached a peak of 76 for several days but mainly leveled off at about 68. At the close of the season, after some of individuals quit to return to driving school buses, the number was 63.

Officials had a goal of 90 to 100 at the start of the season, but were not able to get there. And while ridership was lower, which eased some of the strain, struggles still existed with crowding and delays, according to Adkins’ reports.

For 2022, officials said they want to have 90 drivers, with 100 the ultimate goal.

This story appears in the print edition of the OC Today on Dec. 24, 2021.

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