LOS ANGELES — Whether it’s for freight trucks, delivery vans, ride-hails or public transit, drivers are in high demand these days as the economy recovers from COVID and shifts into overdrive.
Peruse the job listings on web sites such as LinkedIn and SimplyHired, and there are thousands of driver positions in Los Angeles, many of them offering signing bonuses, training reimbursement and other incentives.
“It’s very difficult to find drivers,” said Patrice McElroy. The head of human capital and development for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is looking to hire 800 bus operators between now and the end of summer as it begins to ramp up service that had been cut during the pandemic.
Metro is dangling DMV licensing reimbursement as a lure for a job that starts at $16.90 per hour. But competition for drivers is steep.
"The worker shortage is real — and it's getting worse by the day," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark said in a statement Tuesday, when the agency released its America Works Report: Quantifying the Nation's Workforce Crisis. Three quarters of the country’s businesses reported it was either “difficult” or “very difficult” to hire workers right now.
That includes the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, both of which are actively recruiting new drivers to their platforms as the economy rebounds and trip requests surge. Due to high demand, ride-hail trips cost 37% more in March than a year earlier and 40% more in April, according to the research firm Rakuten Intelligence.
“With more people getting vaccinated and moving around, riders in Los Angeles are using the Uber app more,” an Uber spokesperson told Spectrum News 1.
Because more app use by riders necessitates more drivers to get them around, Uber is currently offering a temporary earnings boost to LA drivers working at least 20 hours per week. The spokesperson said they can now make $30.44 per hour, though the boost will only last “for the next several months.” As more drivers return, the company said, it will return pay to pre-pandemic levels.
A current promotion seeking Lyft drivers said individuals with their own cars in LA can earn up to $36 per hour right now.
“We’re seeing big increases in demand for rides as vaccines roll out and people get ready to start moving again,” a Lyft spokesperson told Spectrum News 1.
During its May 4 earnings call, Lyft said it was focused on increasing the number of drivers on its platform to help meet rider demand; the number or drivers going through the onboarding process has increased more than 25% since February.
But even with boosts in pay, a lot of workers are sitting on the sidelines rather than getting behind the wheel.
"I don’t trust the companies. They’ve lied and tricked us and everything before. You don’t know when they’re going to pull the rug out from underneath your feet," said Esterphanie St. Juste, an Uber and Lyft driver who stopped driving because of the pandemic in March and has been living on unemployment. "They’re waiting for when unemployment ends so they can go lower than 62 cents per mile."
St. Juste said she doesn't want to return to driving. She wants to go back to school so she can work in an office.
About half of Uber and Lyft drivers stopped driving during the pandemic, many of them due to reduced demand for rides and health concerns. But low wages were also a factor.
The average yearly pay for an Uber driver is $30,346, which is 38% below the national average, according to the job listings website, Indeed.com. Average yearly pay for a Lyft driver is $35,851, which is 27% below the national average.
Whatever type of driving they do, the average person who makes a living driving in California earns only slightly more than the $15 minimum wage. As of May 28, the average salary for a driver is $17.19 per hour in California, and $17.01 in Los Angeles, according to Indeed.com. The site found that truck drivers earned the most at about $30 per hour, followed by local drivers ($22.29), shuttle drivers ($18.91), delivery drivers ($17.87), route drivers ($17.65) and van drivers ($17.30).
Just 41% of individuals who drive for a living think their salaries are enough for the cost of living in their area, the site found.
Generous unemployment benefits are also keeping drivers on the sidelines. Those receiving unemployment are currently getting $300 more per week than they did before COVID, thanks to a federal provision for pandemic additional compensation that will run through September. More than 40% of those receiving unemployment are making more now than they did at their previous jobs, according to a University of Chicago study.
The driver shortage is at odds with a rapid post-pandemic economic expansion, as consumers open their wallets to shop and travel. Goldman Sachs predicts the U.S. economy will grow 8% this year. The National Retail Federation forecasts that 2021 retail sales will grow between 6.5 and 8.2% compared with 2020.
“We have the best economic growth since the early ‘80s,” said Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst with the commercial vehicle and transportation data analysis firm, ACT Research.
“When you have an initial inflection in economic activity, there’s never enough drivers to get all the freight delivered in a timely manner,” Vieth said of an ongoing, and worsening, truck driver shortage. The U.S. employs about 3 million truck drivers but has been losing them for the past several years due to baby boomers aging out of the profession and new national regulations that are eliminating 4,300 new drivers per month due to drug and alcohol violations, he said.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.
“All the driver schools and DMVs were closed, so there was a fairly sharp dropoff in new commercial driver’s license issuance in 2020 and into the beginning of this year,” Vieth said.
It isn’t just trucking companies that are now feeling the effects of a lag in training and licensure but public transit agencies. Prior to COVID, Metro hired 60 to 100 bus operators each month to maintain a staff of 3,300 as drivers retired or moved into other agency positions. That hiring stopped during COVID, decreasing its bus-driving staff due to the forces of attrition.
That wasn’t so significant during the pandemic, when Metro had cut its bus service by 20% and ridership had fallen, but it’s potentially deleterious now that the agency plans to bump up service this month and again in September.
Daily bus ridership had plummeted to 270,000 in April 2020, when much of LA County was on lockdown. It has since rebounded to 490,000, which is still considerably lower than it was pre-pandemic. Ridership is now 55% of what it was before COVID, when the agency’s 189 bus lines carried about 900,000 passengers daily.
In anticipation of a return to normal, Metro is working to increase its bus operator staff from 3,300 to 4,100, but it’s a slow road.
“We have to ensure that we’re covering the times that our passengers need us,” McElroy said of the 800 bus operator positions it’s hoping to fill by September. As of Friday, it had hired 285 of the drivers it needs.