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Transit drivers struggle with low morale, low pay as ridership increases

Even as HRM reports growth of ridership over the past year, many transit operators aren't seeing improvements
101317-halifax transit bus-MG
A Halifax Transit bus (Meghan Groff/

Even as HRM reports growth of ridership over the past year, up 7.1 per cent according to director of Halifax Transit Dave Reage, many transit operators aren't seeing improvements.

"Overall, I don't think the morale is where it needs to be," says Ken Wilson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, which represents bus and ferry operators, mechanics, and coin room workers.

Wilson says that many bus drivers don't realize what they're signing up for when they take the job. For new bus drivers or even experienced ones, Wilson says the job entails working split shifts, late hours, and not getting holidays off.

"You're going to have to work weekends and work weekends for quite a few years. You're going to have to work Christmas, holidays. You won't get the prime vacations. I don't know if we're selling that at our hiring seminars as well as we should be," he tells NEWS 95.7's The Todd Veinotte Show.

Members of the union often attend hiring seminars to explain these details to prospective employees, says Wilson. But there are still often surprises.

"Our attrition, our internal rate in my opinion is high, higher than what it's ever been. This isn't a job for everybody," he adds.

The union president says that bus drivers need a thick skin to be able to deal with the public on a day-to-day basis.

"You're going to be yelled at by the public for a variety of reasons. [But] it's not you that's being yelled at, it's the bus driver that's being yelled at," Wilson says.

For the 66 bus routes in HRM, Wilson says they hire over 60 new operators every year. For those operators, low pay is another aspect of the job the union has been fighting to change.

"For a four-year bus driver you're going to start off making about 40 grand a year, and then you step up right through to the top you get to about 57 thousand," Wilson explains.

Although Wilson says that translates to about $20 an hour, employees aren't seeing the full amount because they pay into high-cost benefits plans.

"Our benefits are so high here, we have the highest LTD [long-term disability]. our medical costs are high," Wilson says. "So when you're coming from a job making 13, 14 bucks an hour, coming to a job making 20 bucks an hour, you don't see that net increase, and that's some of the retention problem as well."

The union president says part of the reason the medical benefits plans are so pricey is because many Local 508 employees can't transfer to another division if they're injured.

"For the police for example...if you had an injury you could really sit at a desk and become that police officer inside the precinct. But for a bus driver we can't go and do clerical because that's another union's work in our building," he explains.

To resolve these problems, Wilson hopes to improve communication with the Labour Management Committee.

"We used to meet every three weeks to a month and now we're meeting every three months," he says. "It's hard to deal with stuff. We have over 60 outstanding grievances."

And for those looking for a job as a bus operator, Wilson recommends doing the research to know what the job entails.

"It's a pretty grueling job," he says. "It takes a special person to be an operator."

Victoria  Walton

About the Author: Victoria Walton

Victoria is's weekend editor and a Halifax-based freelancer. She is originally from Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.
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