Ozark Regional Transit giving raises this year, will need more money to sustain them, provide same service throughout Northwest Arkansas

Vehicles harder to get, more expensive

Ozark Regional Transit will have to pay more to buy five new vans using an Oklahoma state vehicle bid after having an order for six Ford vans under an Arkansas state bid canceled. The vans were ordered early last year for $59,000 each, but after repeated delays, the order was recently canceled by the supplier. In the interim, prices have increased to $89,000 each. The vans will replace ones bought in 2016.

Source: Ozark Regional Transit

SPRINGDALE — Ozark Regional Transit will use federal covid relief money to give all employees a $2 per hour raise this year in an effort to stop losing employees, but they’ll need more money from members next year to avoid cutting services.

Joel Gardner, executive director at the transit provider, said he can use about $340,000 Ozark Regional Transit has left of American Rescue Plan money for employee retention. That’s also enough to bump starting pay from $13.50 to $15.50. The board approved Gardner’s request Thursday.

The American Rescue Plan is a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package designed to help the country recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

“We are hemorrhaging employees when it comes to $13.50 starting wage,” Gardner told board members. “I need to be able to compete so I can still provide service. That’s the problem I’m running into. I have people who are leaving me for higher-paying jobs.”

Convenience stores in Springdale are advertising $15.50 to start for clerks, he said.

“If we brought ourselves even 50 cents higher than a gas station attendant, I’m confident we could stretch this through the end of December,” Gardner said. “What happens from Jan. 1, 2023, when it’s gone? How do we sustain that $15.50 per hour, minimum, going into 2023? That is the real challenge here.”

Gardner said he lost another two employees last Friday to higher-paying jobs, one at $18.25 per hour and the other about $20 per hour.

“Our applications coming in are slim and none,” Gardner said. “Our employees going out, we are at one-third drivers lost right now. I’ve got people who are working doubles, 70 hours a week at this point in time, and I’m wearing them out.”

The change will also raise overtime pay by $3 per hour.

Gardner said for next year, budget increases will need to be significant enough to carry the increase into 2023 and beyond.

Gardner said he’ll ask the cities and counties to increase contributions and, if some refuse, Ozark Regional Transit will have to cut services in those areas.

Three years ago, Ozark Regional Transit asked for an increase to give employees a $3 raise. That was negotiated to $1 a year for three years instead. That means the increase now needs to be more than what it should have been, Gardner said.

“I’m supportive of that,” said Peter Nierengarten, a Fayetteville representative. “I don’t have a good answer for you yet on what will happen at the end of the year, but what I need from you to help provide a little clarity on that is what that $2 an hour means for the city of Fayetteville in terms of our annual contribution to ORT. So, I need that number as quickly as you can get it to me.”

Nierengarten said with that information, he can provide some guidance on what to expect from Fayetteville next year. Fayetteville is the largest contributor to Ozark Regional Transit.

Sharon Lloyd, who represents Washington County, said she was concerned about giving raises without knowing how they will be sustained.

“Your proposal is that this becomes permanent and it basically just increases the hourly rate for bus service,” said John McCurdy of Rogers. “And, so, if you can’t increase your budget accordingly, the amount of hours you have available are reduced.”

Gardner confirmed that is the scenario that has been used in the past, but on a much smaller scale.

“Realistically, if we come to the end of 2022 and roll into 2023 with large chunks of reduced hours across the Northwest Arkansas area, people will be — no other term to use — pissed,” Gardner said. “I have no doubt.”

McCurdy said he had a hard time convincing city leaders to approve last year’s budget.

“We’re going to have to see a significant increase in ridership, but at the same time, I don’t see that we have a choice,” McCurdy said. “There won’t be anything left eventually if we don’t keep up with the market place.”

Gardner said he plans to emphasize Ozark Regional Transit’s benefits package and work environment. Drivers can work in the city they live in, they’re not traveling long distances over the road out of town and they don’t have to pick up heavy stuff, for example.

“There’s a whole marketing campaign that’s going to have to be built around this to get them away from the other jobs,” Gardner said.

Chris Brown, Fayetteville’s other representative, said $15.50 seems comparatively low for drivers and asked for an analysis of what it would cost to go up even more.

“What does that look like cost-wise,” Brown said. “It would be helpful for us to understand that.”

Gardner said he’ll provide the board spreadsheets calculating various amounts.


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