Detroit bus drivers get significant pay raise under tentative contract

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City bus drivers are set to get a raise for the first time in three years and a starting pay bump to $15 an hour under a tentative agreement reached Wednesday.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Thursday discussed the four-year deal reached with leadership from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, saying the pay of the city's bus drivers is something "that has always bothered me."

A DDOT 17 bus sits near Ascension St. John Hospital  in Detroit on May 18, 2020.

The city's bus drivers have been without a contract since December 2018 and got their last raise in July of that year. 

Currently, the base pay of Detroit bus drivers is $12.99 per hour with a maximum wage of $18.56 an hour. Under the proposal, the base would rise to $15 per hour and top out at $21 per hour, officials said during a Thursday news conference. 

Drivers also would get a 2.5% increase in pay annually over four years beginning July 1, 2021. The agreement will be presented to Detroit's City Council for consideration.

"I've always felt like the men and women who have the responsibility for driving buses should start at a living wage," Duggan said. "Now we've got a situation where we're paying our operators fairly." 

For years, Duggan said, drivers have trained with Detroit's Department of Transportation but then left to work at competing companies because of low wages. 

ATU President Glenn Tolbert said pay levels have been a major point of contention for the union. 

"This has been a long time in the making," he said. "This has just been a hard-fought road. We're glad to be putting this chapter behind us. We're finally being brought somewhere up to where we think we should be with the men and women in the region."

Tolbert told The News that prior to the pandemic, the department had about 530 drivers. Now, with retirements and resignations, Detroit has about 430 drivers. 

"People are retiring at an alarming rate. People are coming to get the license and go on somewhere else," he said. "Nobody can live off $12 or $13 an hour with a family."

Tolbert said the agreement is a step in the right direction but the union is still advocating for hazard pay. It previously had been offered to drivers during the initial months of the pandemic but was discontinued after three months, he said. 

In the agreement, the administration proposed modifications to DDOT's attendance policy aimed at reducing absenteeism among drivers. It also covers additional employee assistance offerings, officials said. 

Mikel Oglesby, the city's new executive director of transit, said the adjustments will put wage levels where they need to be. Past tensions between management and the union are "out the window."

"We're all working together as one and we all have the same goals," he said. 

The city in recent weeks has boosted COVID-19 safety protocols to protect bus operators and passengers as buses prepare to resume fare collections on March 15. Fares were suspended last March due to COVID-19.

DDOT's new safeguards include permanent barriers, requiring masks and social distancing on the coaches and the use of hand sanitizer dispensers as riders board and before paying fares. 

Detroit's bus system is the state's largest public transit system and provided service to about 85,000 riders daily before the pandemic. The service charges riders $2 for a four-hour pass and $5 for a 24-hour pass.