LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville's paratransit service is asking residents to only request rides for "essential services" due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19.
TARC3 sent the following statement to customers Monday:
Due to a significant driver shortage related to COVID cases, we are encouraging TARC3 customers to book essential trips only. Routing and wait times will likely be impacted by this driver shortage. TARC3 and MV Transit have contacted any customer who may have been exposed to COVID during a prior trip. We apologize for the inconvenience and ask for your patience.
It's an issue following TARC into 2022: Not enough drivers.
It's not what thousands of TARC3 bus riders wanted to hear to start the new year, after an at-times exhausting 2021 -- evidenced in the last time the public addressed Metro Council on Dec 16.
"I called my will-call in and said 11:45 a.m. I wasn't picked up until 4 p.m.," said Mary Downing, a TARC3 rider.
TARC Director of Marketing and Communications Jenny Recktenwald says a surge in COVID infections have led to many driver absences, adding on top of existing staffing gaps and hindering progress she says they've made to hire and retain.
“[We have] about 100 [TARC3] employees from week to week, but we need to be at about 120," Recktenwald said.
Recktenwald says they're not telling customers not to ride TARC3, but rather to consider alternatives if it's possible.
“We know that doesn’t stop folks from needing to make it to medical appointments, and to jobs and to other things they have going on, but our request is limiting trips if possible to essential only. That is so we can continue to meet the demand while keeping people safe," she said.
Metro Council President David James called it a heartbreaking situation for riders, one where omicron is limiting options.
“We have a tremendous number of employees in metro government, TARC, and all throughout the city out with COVID right now," James said.
From a driver perspective, TARC driver union (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1447) President Lillian Brents sees this as a chance for TARC management to step up for drivers impacted by COVID.
“Members are getting COVID, and they’re sitting at home without a paycheck," Brents said.
She feels new protocols, like paying drivers during their COVID absences, would help solve overarching issues -- and improve hiring and retention.
“It’s hard to ask someone to work for a company when you’re not taking care of them," she said.
Brents said, unfortunately, she has no faith that’ll happen.
The current contract between the driver’s union and TARC is up at the end of August. That’s when further boosts in pay, and COVID-19 protections, will likely be demanded for the next deal.