Three Union Work Rules That Increase the Cost of Operating Transit

Passengers board a New York bus out in the street because it is unable to get to the curb. Christopher MacKechnie

Three Union Work Rules That Increase the Cost of Operating Transit

People are frequently surprised at how expensive transit is to operate. For example, in Pittsburgh , each hour of bus service operated costs the Port Authority $161.47. In comparison, each hour of bus service operated in Las Vegas costs only $88.62. Even if the cost of living was not higher in Las Vegas than Pittsburgh, it seems clear that the major difference between the two systems - Pittsburgh is directly operated while Las Vegas contracts out its operation to a private company - is what is driving the cost differential.

There are three major union work rules that increase the cost of providing transit, ,and they are all related to the fact that transit service is heavily peaked; i.e., more buses (and drivers) are needed at peak periods than at other times of the day because more patrons are taking the bus at those times.

Not Allowing Part-Time Drivers

The nature of peaked operation means that extra buses are operated during rush hours. These buses are out there only during rush hours, which means they are likely being used for only two or three hours at a time. Many transit agencies do not allow the use of part-time drivers, so full-time drivers must drive these runs. Because these runs are less than eight hours, if full-time drivers operate them then the runs have to be paired up with another run before or after in a split shift or the drivers will operate them in addition to their regular shift, which means that the bus drivers will be paid overtime.

Allowing part-time drivers would mean that the drivers of these runs would only be paid for the time they worked. Pittsburgh has a heavily peaked system while Las Vegas operates mostly the same amount of service the whole day.

Requiring a Minimum Percentage of Straight Runs

Most union contracts mandate that a certain minimum percentage of all runs must be straight runs as opposed to split runs.

Because bus schedules cannot always be written in a way that allows for straight runs, mandating a minimum percentage of them will result in straight runs that have too much overtime or penalty time (described below). Excessive overtime or penalty time will increase costs.  Some minimum percentage is called for as otherwise all runs would be split, as it is easier in transit to combine two pieces to create eight hours than it is to have only one piece.  Some transit agencies have rules that require a very high percentage of straight runs on weekends, especially Sunday - as high as 80%.  Having that high a percentage can make it extremely difficult to schedule peak hour trippers on the weekend.  Admittedly very rare, not being able to schedule appropriately drives up costs.

Requiring Minimum Paid Hours on a Daily or Weekly Basis

Most union contracts stipulate that drivers receive a minimum amount of pay for each day or week they work regardless of how many hours they actually work. For example, a transit agency union contract might give drivers a daily guarantee of eight hours. What this means is that a driver that operates a run that is only seven and one half hours long will get paid for eight hours.

The extra half hour is called "penalty" or "guarantee" time. Obviously, penalty time is inefficient because you are paying someone for not working. Rostering can save money by minimizing penalty time and overtime, but only if daily and weekly hour guarantees are relaxed.


Saving money is a frequently touted benefit of contracting out transit operations to a private company; this benefit is often achieved due to private companies paying lower wages and benefits than the public sector. Not surprisingly, unions oppose contracting out. What is surprising is that more transit agencies have not thought to reform the three work rules discussed above instead of contacting out their operations - allowing part-time drivers and easing or eliminating the minimum straight percentage and minimum hour guarantees will also result in cost savings without affecting the wage rate or benefits of the drivers.

Everyone wants bus drivers to make a fair wage and have benefits, but the recession-induced financial problems of American transit agencies means that it has become increasingly untenable to pay drivers for time they do not work, amongst other things.