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Obamacare complicates hiring of bus drivers

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Durango Transit bus driver Dwight Stoval greets passengers on his bus at the Durango Transit Center. Many bus drivers are seeing work-hour reductions. The city is limiting part-time employees to 27 hours a week to minimize exposure to the new health-reform requirements.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

Getting drivers behind the steering wheel of a bus has always been a run around for the city of the Durango.

There is a lot of turnover for a job with pay starting at just under $15 an hour and topping out about $20 an hour, officials said.

“A lot of (drivers) are retired from other careers,” said Roy Petersen, the city’s director of operations. “They (only want to) drive a few hours to supplement their retirement. That seems to be the market we draw from for employees.”

In a twist owing to the law of unintended consequences, staffing problems were recently exacerbated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Employers with 50 or more employees must now provide health insurance for employees who work more than 30 hours a week or else pay a $2,000 tax penalty per employee without health insurance.

So as not to get “sideways” on Obamacare requirements, the city now limits part-time workers to 27 hours a week, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

Three drivers have recently quit. As of early-April, the city could not fill seven other open positions for part-time drivers. While the city cannot say for certain whether the three bus drivers left because of the new 27-hour limitation, it is believed to be at least a factor in their decision to quit.

Previously, about half of the 20 part-time drivers were averaging more than 27 hours a weeks, Petersen said.

Service to customers has not been affected because administrators can fill in for no-show drivers, but that’s not a sustainable solution, Petersen said.

To solve staffing woes, the City Council recently gave approval for hiring three additional full-time drivers, bringing the total number of full-time drivers to 13.

Because of Obamacare, these new full-time drivers will get health insurance, officials said.

Dr. William Plested, a retired cardiac surgeon living in Bayfield and a former president of the American Medical Association, called Obamacare an “unmitigated disaster” for the burdens it places on employers, especially small businesses.

“A lot of them have (profit) margins so small they can’t take it,” Plested said.This law is “going to affect more things than anybody (thought of),” he said.But Petersen and LeBlanc said they were able to work within existing transit budget to afford the $41,000 needed to upgrade three part-time positions into three full-time positions by transferring the money from the funds earmarked for part-time positions. The city would like to hire from its part-time staff to fill the three new full-time positions.“We just had to change the alignment of full and part-time drivers,” LeBlanc said. “We’re not asking for more money.”City Councilor Paul Broderick recalled from budget workshops-that Obamacare would cost the city about $900,000 a year if all of its seasonal and part-time workers were given health insurance. This is what made the 27-hour rule necessary, he said.“When we understood (the law), we decided we can still provide the same hours of service with existing personnel if we keep some full-time and keep others part-time,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said the city has not attempted to estimate the costs of the new law. The only positions that have been promoted to full-time because of the health-care law are the three driver positions, he said.

Petersen did not want to fault Obamacare for staffing problems.To use a health-insurance analogy, the problem of trying to find drivers has always been a pre-existing condition for employers.“It’s just tough in the transit world, but it was tough in the transit world before the Health Care Act,” Petersen said. “We had a lot of turnover. This is an attempt to solidify the staff.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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