The city is asking some HSR bus drivers to work up to 68 hours a week to make up for a spike in absenteeism that means many scheduled buses aren't getting on the road.

The bus driver's union, while agreeing to the request, called the move a "Band-Aid solution" to larger problems with how the bus system is being managed. It has called for Hamilton's transit director, Debbie Dalle Vedove, to be fired.

'It appears we've reached a tipping point so it's all hands on deck from a management perspective to find ways to eliminate the cancelled service.' - Dan McKinnon, general manager, public works

According to the city, an average of 23 buses a day are cancelled, because there is no driver available for a given route. Staffers say 589 buses were cancelled on 28 different routes last month.

The average absence rate from Oct. 22-28 was 19 per cent— this is 19 per cent of operators needed to complete the scheduled work.

The city says that in October there were 10 'no shows,' drivers who were scheduled and didn't show up for work.

Dan McKinnon, general manager for public works, says the issue stems largely from a worker absenteeism problem that has been escalating in Hamilton for several years.

"If we didn't have the absenteeism issues, we wouldn't be having this cancellation of service issue," said McKinnon. 

"Both myself and the director (of transit) inherited this issue, but it appears we've reached a tipping point so it's all hands on deck from a management perspective to find ways to eliminate the cancelled service," said McKinnon.

Overtime deal with union

In response, the city says it has brokered an agreement with the union that represents HSR drivers to extend the hours that operators can work — but McKinnon says that extra work isn't mandatory.

"If they are ready, willing and able to work more overtime, then we can give them more overtime," he said. "Obviously we're relying on people to use their own judgement about whether or not they're able to work those extra hours."

McKinnon says overtime is not a long-term solution. 

"That's not an ideal situation and it's certainly not a sustainable approach to things, so we know we need to do something different and that's what's in the works now," said McKinnon. 

McKinnon says about 14 new operators are expected to join staff mid-December as part of their regular recruitment. 

 'This is not a safe or sustainable way to run a transit system, and it never has been.' - Eric Tuck, ATU local 107 president

In a statement released yesterday from union local 107 president Eric Tuck, the union said the real issue is that the city isn't hiring enough drivers.

"If every single operator who is off sick, on vacation, on WSIB, or on emergency leave were to show up and work 40 to 50 hours per week, HSR still wouldn't have enough staff to fill all the work on the schedule," said Tuck.

Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Green says that the city needs to get more drivers on the road and improve conditions for them.

"It's neither safe or sustainable and as somebody who takes the HSR daily, I see firsthand the impacts of delaying our 10-year transit strategy," said Green. 

The strategy aims at improving the transit service in the city. 

Green says he'd like the city to revisit the 10-year transit strategy in a meaningful way as well as what their investment was.

Demand for leadership change 

The union letter says that HSR management "coerces" operators to work overtime.

"When that hasn't filled all the service gaps, management begins rejecting all requests for time off to attend weddings, funerals, family commitments, medical appointments — even necessary cancer treatment," said Tuck.

Tuck says operators have consistently agreed to work overtime to keep the system running.

"This week, at the request of HSR management, we are again agreeing to this stopgap Band-Aid solution and we know that our members will step up to fill this work. But this is not a safe or sustainable way to run a transit system, and it never has been," said Tuck.

He says the union wants to see a change in leadership at the top of HSR.

"There is no room in such a high-quality, publicly-operated transit system for people who don't want to do their job. Thus, the best first step toward our goal is for the City of Hamilton to remove this incompetent management team, starting with the director, and hire a world-class director of transit who wants to see HSR run on time, grow, and thrive."

Asked about the union demand around HSR leadership, McKinnon called it "unfortunate."