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What’s Working: Colorado needs transit and truck drivers. How’s a $5,000 bonus sound?

Here’s how Denver and RTD are handling the driver shortage. Plus: Inflation continues, new business laws and more.

  • Credibility:

More people are finding work and employers appear to be closer to fulfilling their job openings, but there’s still a shortage of drivers in Colorado. 

Of course, there’s long been a need for drivers. It’s not just a pandemic thing. A 2019 report from the American Trucking Associations laments the shortage but notes that the driver shortfall was first documented in 2005. It got worse in 2021, with a historic high of 80,000 openings.

In the Denver area, it may be more noticeable as the Regional Transportation District brings back bus routes that were trimmed when COVID struck. And there are efforts by the city of Denver to expand recycling services, which means it needs even more help. 

An RTD bus is seen on Tuesday, July 21, 2021, in downtown Denver. Denver’s Regional Transportation District operates rail and bus services over 2,342 square miles, serving over 3 million people. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The possible solutions? Offer bonuses. Rejigger driver schedules. Make the current staffing more efficient, said Nancy Kuhn, director of Denver’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“We have made progress in our Solid Waste Management Division (the team that collects trash/recycling) with some unprecedented steps, going from offering $2,500 signing bonuses earlier in the year to $5,000 signing bonuses currently, and doing some on-the-spot hiring events that shorten the recruitment process,” Kuhn said in an email. 

DOTI is also changing routes and work schedules to make the collection system more efficient. To retain workers, Kuhn said DOTI increased wages last year to current drivers based on their experience as a commercial driver’s license holder. There was still a driver shortage this year, though, so they changed driver routes and work days to make it more efficient for everyone. 

“And we implemented denser, more compact routes to be able to collect the additional trash and recycling Denverites were setting out as they worked from home,” she said. “We also moved to a four-day, Monday through Thursday, collection schedule, where Fridays can be used for catchup work, reducing the need to work weekends, and helping prevent worker fatigue.” 

RTD, meanwhile, is offering up to $4,000 in bonuses and that includes positions from mechanic, light-rail operator, conductor and service and cleaning positions. The agency has always been on the hunt for more drivers but before the pandemic, the bonus was around $2,000, said RTD spokeswoman Marta Sipeki. 

But things have changed since then, she said. 

“It’s just a really competitive market right now,” Sipeki said. “And just like with any industry, as the workforce gets older, we’re also dealing with people retiring.” 

As of April 30, the agency had 401 open positions, or roughly 24% of what it needs to be fully staffed. She shared the RTD needs chart:

Beyond the bonus, RTD also provides paid training to help drivers get a commercial driver’s license, which can cost several thousand dollars. Training takes seven weeks for bus drivers and 11 weeks for rail operators. RTD bus and rail operators also negotiated a starting wage of $24 an hour as part of a collective bargaining agreement in March.

RTD has been in the news lately for its plans to increase public safety at Union Station in Denver. The agency is increasing safety measures all around. The see-through shields that separated bus drivers from passengers during COVID will remain and new buses will have the shields factory installed.

But it’s also because of COVID that there’s a shortage. RTD cut back a number of routes in the pandemic and now is competing to get drivers back.

“We did cut back on service because of COVID because not as many people were riding. … And so we’re slowly building back up,” she said. “But we can’t build up any more than what we have drivers for.”

Applicants for Regional Transportation District driver openings don’t need a commercial drivers license to qualify. RTD provides paid training. An RTD worker in training near the 16th Street Mall in Denver on Oct. 22, 2019. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

>> City of Denver job openings

>> RTD job openings

Not just Denver: Drivers needed

A quick look around the state pulls up these incentives by local transportation agencies:

  • Mountain Metro Transit: The Colorado Springs Transit Management Company offers paid training to get a Class B CDL license and a $500 bonus after training is completed. Full-time pay starts at $19.51 an hour, plus up to $2,000 bonus a year. >> DETAILS
  • Ride Transfort: The city of Fort Collins is offering a $1,500 bonus to newly trained hires that is paid completely after one year. An hourly bus operator position pays $20 to $27.92 an hour based on experience. >> OPENINGS
  • Grand Valley Transit: Grand Junction’s transit system, which posts service reductions on its main page, offers a $1,000 sign-on bonus for bus driver jobs that include medical benefits and a starting rate of $15.50. Hiring is done through Transdev, a private operator of passenger transit that also has openings in Colorado Springs, Englewood and Denver. >> OPENINGS
  • Colorado Department of Transportation: Highway maintenance workers are always in demand. But this gig wants applicants who want to obtain a commercial driver’s license. With a starting salary of $3,347, there’s a $2,000 potential bonus and benefits like student loan forgiveness. >> MORE OPENINGS

There are other reasons for the trucker shortage, like stress. The New York Times delved into other issues earlier this year. >> Read

Inflation, gas prices and other economic data

A lot of national data came out this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that means Colorado data should come out soon. If you recall, the Denver metro area’s annual inflation rate was 9.1%, compared to the U.S. rate of 8.5%. If you missed the national stats this week, here are some highlights:

  • The U.S. inflation rate was up 8.3% from a year-ago April, so slightly lower than March’s annual increase. What happened? Gas prices dipped in April but they’re back up this month. Food costs, however, rose 1% from March to April. >> BLS data 
  • Inflation rates for the West Region — which includes California, Alaska, Idaho, Colorado and eight other states — saw April inflation rate drop to 8.3% from 8.7% in March. Excluding food and energy prices, the rate still dropped to 6.4% from 6.8%. >> BLS data
  • Gas prices, meanwhile, are now averaging $4.12 a gallon in Colorado, compared to $3.94 a month ago, according to AAA Gas Prices tracker. The highest prices are in the Durango area, at $4.55 for a regular gallon of gas. >> Latest gas prices
  • Average hourly earnings for all employees declined 0.1% from a year ago April to $34.60, down from $34.90. Again, this is national data. >> Chart

Inflation calculator: If a week’s worth of groceries cost $100 in 2000, you’ll need $171.27 in today’s money to make the same purchase. See what inflation has done to your budget with the BLS Inflation Calculator. >> Inflation check

Business bill check

The Colorado legislature ended its lawmaking session on Wednesday and contemplated roughly 650 pieces of legislation that were introduced in the past 120 days. Not all made it through. And Colorado Sun politics reporters summarized 100 of them that will affect your life in this one-story roundup: “100 bills debated at the Colorado legislature this year that you should know about.”

Senators cast votes in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Some of the business bills that passed:

Senate Bill 234 — The unemployment bill mentioned in last week’s What’s Working. This will use $600 million from federal relief to pay down the billion-dollar loan of the unemployment insurance trust fund. For those who suffered through pandemic unemployment only to be socked with an overpayment bill due to a misunderstanding or error, this limits what the labor department can claw back. 

House Bill 1001 — This bill reduces business filing fees to $1 in many cases. That’ll cost the state $16.71 million. But as Secretary of State Jena Griswold shared earlier, “Remember, we have over 800,000 businesses registered in the state of Colorado, the vast majority of them are small. … They include a lot of folks who have to supplement their income because just getting by is harder every single day.”

Senate Bill 34 — This gives the Secretary of State’s Office and Attorney General’s Office the go ahead to create an interagency process to investigate potentially fraudulent documents and combat business identity theft. 

House Bill 1230 — Provides $250,000 a year for the Employment Support and Job Retention Program, which helps unemployed and underemployed Coloradans find better jobs. The bill extends the program indefinitely.

Colorado small businesses have easier time filling job openings

A new report found that 46% of small businesses in Colorado are still unable to find enough workers to hire. But that’s a lot better than the rest of the country, where 63% of small business owners can’t find the workers they need. 

“This is a decrease over February’s number of 72%, so for right now in (Colorado), the challenging labor shortage remains daunting, but seems to be improving, at least for April/May,” said Chuck Casto, an Alignable spokesman. “…And that is a big decline, and hopefully it will continue. But let’s see where that goes in another month or two, as inflation is really affecting more and more of the (small businesses), in addition to the labor shortage.”

And while Colorado is doing better than the nation, Casto points out that that’s still nearly half of all small businesses in the state that are having hiring trouble.

The data is from 2,428 small businesses surveyed in May by Alignable, a small business referral network of 7 million members in North America. There were 201 Colorado responses.

Data for the industries most affected wasn’t available for Colorado, but nationwide, restaurants were at the top of the list, with 83% of owners reporting they cannot find workers. >> See survey

→ Speaking of restaurants… The Angel Relief Fund from the Colorado Restaurant Foundation has added $1,000 grants for restaurant workers to pay for mental health care. The organization is also hosting a free mental-health webinar hosted by Khesed Wellness at 11 a.m. on May 24. >> Apply for grant, Register for webinar

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Other working bits

No more HD fees — Paying extra for a high-definition TV broadcast may seem silly these days but back in the early 2000s, it was a thing. And Comcast charged for it. The cable provider doesn’t add the fee to new plans anymore. But for the 40,000 Comcast customers stuck on an old plan that still charges $9.95 for HD service, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser made sure there’s no more penalty to switch. Weiser announced a settlement with Comcast on Friday and if you’re one of those 40,000 customers, Comcast is supposed to let you know within 90 days. If not, contact the AG’s Stop Fraud hotline at 800-222-4444. >> Read settlement

Feds offering $30 to pay broadband — A pandemic program that provided $50 each month to pay one’s broadband bill has ended. But in its place is the Affordable Connectivity Program, which has no end date and provides $30 (or up to $75 for those living on tribal lands) each month to pay for broadband service. A lot of local internet providers are participating. The catch? Anyone in your household must either be part of federal assistance programs like food stamps or Medicaid or your household income must be no more than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that’s $55,500 in Colorado. >> Story, Apply

Wyoming-Colorado job fair — You don’t even have to travel to Wyoming to hear about job openings in Colorado’s northern neighbor. The state’s Workforce Centers are hosting a virtual job fair for openings in Southeastern Wyoming and Colorado a week from Tuesday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 24. Veterans and spouses admitted an hour early. >> Register

Great economy, meh on affordability — A new ranking of best and worst states to live in has Colorado with the 8th best economy compared to the other states. But as for affordability and crime and safety, the state is near the bottom, ranked 46th on both (or for the cynical, we’re near the top as 5th least safe and least affordable). That puts Colorado’s overall ranking at 31st, according to market researchers Top Data. >> The list


What’s happening with your business? Share your stories via email and I may just feature your story in an upcoming column. ~ tamara 


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