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GET faces unprecedented challenges in age of COVID

Golden Empire Transit has faced plenty of challenges since 1973, when it became greater Bakersfield's primary provider of public transportation.

As it turns out, 2021 is no exception in the "challenges" department.

Last week, GET's Board of Directors took a number of steps designed to address issues that simply cannot be ignored, including state requirements for cleaner-burning buses, the organization's dwindling workforce, and the need for contingency plans to maximize readiness "in the event that we lose a portion of our workforce or we experience supply chain issues," GET said in a news release.

Reached Monday, GET's Chief Executive Karen King said the steps approved by the board were the result of long and detailed discussions between staff, the employees' union and King herself.

Long-range switch from natural gas to electric

"We were required to submit a plan to the California Air Resources Board about how we would achieve zero emissions by 2040," King told The Californian.

The answer was electric buses. But the biggest roadblock turned out to be GET's location on the Frontage Road adjacent to Golden State Avenue northwest of F Street.

"Our existing facility is not large enough," King said. "We are not able to bring sufficient power into this facility."

That means someday GET will have to move. But in the meantime, they're moving toward their goals.

GET chose to go with hydrogen cell technology over batteries for its electric buses.

"Neither are proven technology," King said. And both are expensive.

Last week, the board approved the purchase of five fuel cell electric buses for delivery next year. The purchase follows the acquisition of five new buses last year that recently arrived, but are not yet on the streets.

"They should be deployed this fall," King said, "after drivers and mechanics are trained.

"The cost is about a million dollars each," she said. "That's almost double the cost of a CNG (compressed natural gas) bus."

Keeping employees from jumping ship

The board also approved new hiring and employee retention strategies to help with the issue of GET's shrinking workforce.

"We typically have 49 employees in the maintenance department," King said. "We currently have 18.

"We've gone from three shifts to two shifts, and we're working a lot of overtime," she said.

"To get back to pre-pandemic levels, we need 260 bus operators. We're short 47. And our absentee level is exceptionally high," King said.

In an effort to maintain a stable and qualified workforce, GET is offering a "carrot," a $1,500 sign-on bonus for new hires.

In addition, all new employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, she said.

"We have not mandated vaccinations for current employees," King said. "However, we have offered $100 bonuses if you do get vaccinated.

"About 47 percent of our workforce has been vaccinated. That's about the percentage of the people in our community who are vaccinated," she said.

But the choice to come to work unvaccinated may disappear if a protocol proposed by President Joe Biden comes to fruition. The Biden protocol would require all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations.

If that happens, King worries, there could be more departures.

But there's another carrot.

The board also approved incentive pay for existing GET employees through December.

"That's a 5 percent premium pay for hours actually worked," King said.

What ifs

In an attempt to be prepared for various scenarios, the GET board also approved a COVID-19 readiness plan that would offer varied levels of service in the event that the public transit district loses a portion of its workforce or experiences supply chain issues that make it hard for GET to operate at a desired capacity.

"We have seen a disruption in the supply chain," King said. "We can't get parts and tires."

Challenges and unexpected roadblocks are part and parcel of operating any business. But many of the issues King is facing are rare, if not unprecedented.

All she can do is prepare and keep moving forward.

"We know our community depends on us," she said.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.