Tiffany Lister’s day as a Community Connector bus driver started at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, 45 minutes before she welcomed her first passengers aboard in downtown Bangor’s Pickering Square.
Her shift would typically end just after noon, and another driver would take over her route, which takes riders to a number of destinations along Broadway. But Lister has picked up extra shifts often in recent months as the Bangor area’s public bus system has dealt with a staffing shortage.
It’s currently short about six drivers, and has been short by at least five drivers since October. As a result, on Monday, Lister returned to the driver’s seat after her lunch break and ended her double shift around 7 p.m.
Greater Bangor’s bus driver shortage has continued into the new year, forcing the Community Connector to keep reduced service in place on some routes, according to Superintendent Laurie Linscott. The driver shortage first hit in October, and it’s still severe enough that a full bus schedule every day isn’t possible.
Currently, two buses instead of three are serving the Capehart route, which serves a number of destinations along Union Street and the city’s Capehart neighborhood. That means the Community Connector is using a Saturday schedule on that route, with rides starting later in the day and some destinations seeing buses more infrequently. The Black Bear Orono Express that runs between Bangor and the University of Maine has been suspended until late January.
The shortage should let up some in March, Linscott said, when some employees who are on long-term sick leave return to work. But for now, the 26 drivers on staff have to fill 32 slots daily, resulting in a few double shifts every week and some weeks with 65 hours behind the wheel, Lister said.
Clockwise from left: Community Connector bus driver Tiffany Lister communicates on her radio outside the Hannaford on Broadway in Bangor; Community Connector buses line up on Monday morning in Pickering Square in downtown Bangor; Lister talks on her radio; Lister waits for riders to board her bus. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
“I’m exhausted. Most of us are. It seems like we’re here until eight o’clock at night and back at 5:30 in the morning,” she said. “We might as well set up a cot in the bus.”
The Bangor area isn’t alone in struggling to recruit enough bus drivers. Other cities and school districts in Maine and across the country are experiencing something similar.
“I don’t feel the shortage came from COVID. It’s nationwide,” Linscott said. “I’m just not sure if being a bus driver is a dying profession.”
There have been no applicants for open bus driver positions in the last few weeks, she said. The Community Connector team is currently working on finding unique ways to recruit candidates. Meanwhile, ridership has been high throughout last year, Linscott said, though statistics weren’t available Monday. Bus drivers had to turn people away because of a 10-person limit that was in place earlier in the pandemic until July.
Lister spent Monday driving back and forth from Pickering Square to the Broadway Hannaford, making pre-determined stops but also stopping where she knew her regular passengers needed to be dropped off. She broke up arguments that erupted between passengers and greeted most of them by name. After working for the city’s transit system for about eight years, Lister said the best part of her job is getting to know her regular passengers.
Lister has been behind the wheel throughout the pandemic. In April 2020, as the bus system stopped collecting fares to reduce passenger and driver interactions and limited ridership to 10 passengers at a time, Lister’s daily routine consisted of showering and washing her clothes immediately after work and disinfecting the inside of her car with Lysol and leaving it to air out in her garage.
The risk involved with driving people every day in close quarters, combined with lower pay, could be contributing to the bus driver shortage, Lister said.
“It’s putting your life on the line for something that is not as attractive financially,” she said. “But I actually love my job. Because it’s a much smaller transit service, it’s very personal, so you know all the people that ride on the bus by name.”