Hail Is Complicating RTD’s Bus Repairs. But Not In The Way You Might Think

June 25, 2019
Photo: RTD Bus shop 1 | KBeaty
A damaged bus awaits repair at RTD's maintenance facility in north Denver on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

“That's when we really started to see an issue,” said Gieske, RTD's general superintendent of maintenance for bus operations.

That storm caused $2.3 billion in damages, and some 167,000 auto insurance claims. That meant a boom for autobody shops and for the people who staff them. 

While RTD’s body shop workers are unionized and are guaranteed 40 hours a week, Gieske said the temptation of higher wages in the private sector proved too great. 

"You work a little bit harder, you can make a lot more money than you can make here," he said. "That's probably why we aren't seeing the guys come here."

Photo: RTD Bus shop 2 | KBeaty
Steve Gieske, RTD's general superintendent of maintenance for bus operations, stands next to a bus under repair at RTD's maintenance facility in north Denver on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

The shortages mean that some buses are back on the street before every ding and scrape gets buffed out. It also means RTD is subcontracting some minor work, like upholstery for light rail vehicles. That costs more than doing the work themselves, Gieske said. 

“We would much rather do it inside,” he said. 

The worker shortage goes beyond hail damage, said James Boone, a technical trainer and RTD employee of 22 years. Where workers at a private body shop specialize in one or two areas, RTD’s employees must know 10 — from welding to upholstery to making their own parts. 

“Trying to find someone that can do all of that is getting harder,” Boone said.

Photo: RTD Bus shop 3 | KBeaty
James Boone, a technical trainer and RTD employee of 22 years, poses for a portrait in a workspace underneath a bus lift at RTD's maintenance facility in north Denver on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

Justin Gragert, a former union steward at the ATU Local 1001 and an RTD mechanic of 12 years, said there’s another reason the shortage exists: marijuana.

“This industry is known, between mechanics and body shop, for people liking to smoke pot,” he said. 

While cannabis consumption is legal in the state, an RTD spokeswoman said the agency observes federal rules and bans employees from using it. That means in private shops, workers have fewer restrictions and make more money. Gragert said RTD should address the pay gap.

Gragert said he’s been tempted by the private sector before. But mechanic work, much like auto body work, can fluctuate with the season. With a family at home, he said the stability RTD offers is worth the sacrifice. 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that RTD had a backlog of hail-damaged buses. That's incorrect. The backlog consists of general repairs.