Higher Wages, No Fares, and a Massage Chair: How the MVRTA Is Recruiting New Drivers and Increasing Service

Noah Berger, administrator of the MVRTA, stands in the open doorway of an MVRTA bus.
Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority Administrator Noah Berger. Courtesy of the MVRTA.

While transit agencies across the nation struggle to recruit bus drivers, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) in Lawrence and Haverhill is getting ready to increase service after Labor Day weekend after successfully recruiting more bus drivers this summer.

“For the first time in the history of the MVRTA, all Lawrence-based bus routes will operate every 30 minutes, all day long, starting September 6, 2022,” according to an MVRTA press release issued earlier this week.

Before the pandemic, most MVRTA routes ran every 30 minutes only during the morning and evening rush hours, and hourly at other times. Since July, a shortage of drivers had forced the agency to run most routes on an hourly basis all day long.

But while driver shortages are still sandbagging other agencies’ ability to recover from the pandemic, the MVRTA has enjoyed unusual success in finding new bus operators.

Noah Berger, the MVRTA’s administrator, credits “the great work of our team” for the successful recruitment campaign.

“They spent the summer planning and holding job fairs here at MVRTA focused on hiring drivers (and) making sure that the atmosphere here is one that is attractive to and welcoming of our employees,” Berger told StreetsblogMASS.

Among the factors that seem to have helped the MVRTA bring new employees on board:

  • Higher wages. The MVRTA’s starting wage for a new bus driver who already has a commercial driver’s license (CDL) with passenger and air brakes endorsements is $26.23 per hour; new drivers who have a CDL but without the endorsements earn $24.85 per hour. By comparison, new drivers at the MBTA earn just $22.21 per hour after a 2.5 percent increase went into effect last month.
  • Fare-free buses = fewer disputes with riders. As previously covered on StreetsblogMASS, the MVRTA stopped collecting fares on all of its local bus routes on March 1. “Drivers have told us that not having to enforce fare compliance has taken a tremendous burden off of their job responsibilities,” Berger told StreetsblogMASS. “The number of complaints we receive has gone down 31 percent since we stopped collecting fares.”
  • New employee perks. The MVRTA has also added a $1,000 sign-on bonus for new recruits, plus a $1,000 referral bonus. And they’ve added popular new amenities to the drivers’ break room, including a fancy new coffee machine, TV, and a massage chair. “The massage chair and coffee machine, which makes fancy coffee drinks that I haven’t even heard of (although the most popular drink has turned out to be hot chocolate—even in the summer!), have been big hits that have really boosted morale,” Berger told SteetsblogMASS.

Still, the MVRTA’s hiring needs are tiny compared to the MBTA’s: these recruitment initiatives have added eight new drivers to their roster, bringing the total number of bus drivers on their payroll to 79.

The T, by contrast, is currently trying to fill 300 bus operator positions.

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