TAMPA — Tampa could lose 300 jobs to San Antonio and Buffalo after changes to the local bus system last year made it more difficult for one local company to hire new employees.
John Pierino, senior recruiter for One Touch Direct, said the call center usually hires about 60 people a month, but that’s becoming more difficult now that employees can’t get to work as easily on the bus.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority revamped its entire bus network in October, cutting about a fifth of its routes. Those changes eliminated part of Route 7 between Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry Campus and the Citrus Park Walmart.
One of the stops eliminated was right in front of One Touch Direct on Sligh Avenue, which employs 300 people. Pierino said the closest stops are now between a mile and a mile-and-a-half away.
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Recruitment manager Heather Kent estimates about a third of the center’s employees, including herself, take the bus to work. What was a relatively easy commute for many has now grown tiresome and even near impossible, she said.
Take sales agent Remond Preece, 68. He used to leave his house in Temple Terrace at 6:30 a.m. to get to his desk by 7:30 a.m. Now he has to leave at 5 a.m., adding an additional hour-and-a-half to his commute.
Not only is his trip twice as long, but he has to pay $10 to $17 for an Uber ride to the bus stop nearest his home. Once he gets off that bus, he walks 1.5 miles to the office.
The five hours a day he’s traveling could be spent at a part-time job, with family or doing pretty much anything else other than riding a bus.
"I get up at 4:30 in the morning to make sure I get to the bus," Preece said. "My time, my money, it affects everything."
Preece isn’t the only one whose life is more complicated after HART’s changes. The Tampa call center was looking to double its employees, an additional 300 jobs, Pierino said.
But if the transportation network doesn’t improve, One Touch Direct hiring managers say those jobs might go to San Antonio or Buffalo, where employees can more reliably get to work
"We want to bring those jobs to Tampa," Kent said. "But if people can’t get to work, unfortunately, we have to take those jobs out of the community."
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HART’s network overhaul last fall affected the entire county, not just One Touch Direct.
The bus agency started the process in 2016, when it became clear HART could no longer run the same bus routes with what little money it had.
The agency’s $72 million 2017 operating budget remains one of the lowest in the country for a region its size. Jacksonville spent $89 million on its bus system that year. Budgets in similar-sized Detroit and Milwaukee dwarf HART’s at $122 million and $160 million, respectively.
The October overhaul, known as MissionMax, was an attempt to streamline the sprawling system while adjusting to hard financial realities.
HART officials projected service would improve for most of its 43,000 or so customers. They said the new system would reduce wait times, add weekend service and extend hours earlier in the morning and later at night.
But one in five riders wouldn’t see any help from the changes. And HART officials said commutes would be worse for about 4,300 riders, including Preece, who have no other way to get to work, the doctor or the grocery store.
The changes and cuts were made based on productivity and ridership, HART Chief Operating Officer Ruthie Reyes Burckard said.
"Route 7 was not specifically targeted," Reyes Burckard said. "All HART routes exhibiting low ridership-low productivity were adjusted during the MissionMax process."
Before October, Route 7 was averaging 1,354 passengers per weekday, Reyes Burckard said. Data shows that the stops that One Touch Direct employees would have used accounted for fewer than 10 trips per day, a number that doesn’t jibe with the call center’s own estimates of its employees bus use.
After the changes, HART said, Route 7 now boards about 600 people each weekday.
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Pierino remembers what a big deal it was for the company to land a HART bus stop right in front of the office a few years ago.
About eight years ago, he was involved with getting the transit agency to move a stop closer to the office. The process took three or four years, he said, but the company felt good about it. Their employees could leave the office minutes before their scheduled bus rather than walking 10 minutes in either direction in the Florida heat or rain.
But now it’s worse than it was before they landed the stop, he said.
"We had made progress with them, but then, apparently, a bean counter somewhere decided the bus wasn’t being utilized by enough riders," Pierino said. "Which is probably why they had to make a tough decision to end the route."
Regardless of why the change was made, Pierino said it has hampered the company’s ability to bring in new hires.
He sees it time and again in interviews. The discussion will be going well, but then he’ll learn the only option for the person to get work is the bus. That’s when he has to explain the nearest stop is a mile-and-a-half away.
"You can just see their whole body language change," he said. "You hate to imagine that what’s bringing them down is public transit.
"We can like them as much as we want, but if they can’t commit to being here, it doesn’t work."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.