Driver shortage affecting OATS

By Lucas Lord

Public transportation has long been a concern in Harrisonville and Cass County. Helping fill the need for many years, primarily for the elderly, those with disabilities and in rural areas is OATS Transportation Services.

However recently, services in the city have been cut, not because of funding, but more because of a “severe” driver shortage. Despite having a headquarters in Harrisonville, available routes have been on the decline since 2019.

“Our lack of drivers happened by attrition,” said Sara Davis, West Regional Director of OATS. “Some simply said, ‘You know, I don’t want to deal with this anymore.’ When some of the senior centers did not open back up, we lost a few drivers there too. Now we have a severe driver shortage.”

To try and serve the most urgent needs, OATS continues to provide transportation for medical services, but has had to curtail other services such as rides for people tom get their hair done.

According to Davis, the shortage is so widespread that buses from Harrisonville have recently been diverted to Independence on behalf of the Kansas City Transit Authority despite soaring usage rates in the area.

“I am really struggling in Cass. We are bringing drivers from Jackson County to drive routes in Cass and in fact it’s been talked about, not just in my region, to do some service cuts because of the shortage,” she said. “We haven’t had to yet, thankfully. We even offered some drivers overtime to avoid doing that.”

The federal government’s August extension of mask mandates into mid-January covers all transportation throughout the United States, including bus networks. However, Davis didn’t attribute the shortage to these new guidelines.

“I have not had an application in over a month anywhere and that’s unheard of in this business even if it’s just people who were filling out applications for unemployment,” she said.

There are currently only seven drivers and five buses in Cass County “I have not heard any complaints from passengers. The people that ride with us really need transportation. It’s their only form of transportation and it’s not like we are the city bus where people ride from point A to point B just to get somewhere. These people need it,” Davis said.

She added that while the mask mandate may be creating some problems, it is necessary.

“I personally think we should keep the mask mandate forever,” Davis said. “It’s close contact with drivers, especially with people in wheelchairs, the drivers are practically in their faces trying to tie them down.”

While there is a shortage of drivers, there is no shortage of demand.

“Our trips are actually up. We have a driver shortage, but more people are using it. We try not to turn people away but we have recently been having to because we are full,” she said.