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Minority job rate at PSTA is under fire

PSTA officials say low staff turnover and an inability to find qualified job applicants has made meeting federal requirements difficult.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000


Four years ago the federal agency that provides funding for Pinellas County's bus system determined the bus service did not have enough female mechanics and black technicians.

The Federal Transit Administration required the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to submit quarterly reports showing its progress.

Today, the PSTA finds itself still under the federal government's review. Its numbers haven't improved. They've actually dipped, not only in the categories of mechanics and technicians but across the board for women and blacks.

PSTA officials say they have tried to increase the number of minority mechanics and technicians, but low staff turnover and an inability to find qualified job applicants have made it difficult to meet the FTA's requirements. "It's hard to find minorities and females when there are few qualified candidates, period," said PSTA executive director Roger Sweeney, who joined the bus service in 1991.

"I've differed with him on that," said PSTA board member and St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers.

Since joining the PSTA board in April, Flowers said, she has referred several qualified minority job applicants to the agency. She asked, for example, four black men to apply as fuel cleaners. And after hearing about a shortage of bus drivers, Flowers referred her sister-in-law, a former school bus driver, as a possible hire.

None, she said, was hired.

PSTA spokeswoman Janet Recca said she does not know why those job candidates weren't hired. Sometimes, she said, there are no openings. Whatever the case, the agency does its best to hire the most qualified job candidates, she said.

Other board members said the lack of job openings has made it difficult to find qualified job candidates, regardless of race or gender.

"The PSTA has had a problem recruiting in the last few years," said Clearwater city Commissioner Bob Clark. "A lot of it has to do with the tight labor market."

Board member and Indian Rocks Beach city Commissioner Jean Scott said there is not a large pool of qualified woman mechanics.

"Do you know many women who want to work on a bus?" asked Scott, who is running to become the city's first woman mayor. "I know men that don't know how to work on their cars."

In 1998, FTA officials came to the PSTA's headquarters on 49th Street N for 11/2 days. They found the same failings they found in 1996. The FTA asked for quarterly progress reports, promised to re-evaluate the bus service, which carried 9.5-million passengers last year, and then issue a report on its findings by the end of last month.

The report hasn't been issued, and a FTA spokeswoman declined comment.

Some board members were surprised to discover the PSTA has been under review. Clark, who has been a board member since 1995, said the topic has never been discussed at meetings he has attended.

"Absolutely none," Clark said as to whether the matter had been raised in meetings.

Last month, PSTA board members voted unanimously to create a position for an equal employment opportunity coordinator. Whoever gets the job will be responsible for recruiting and hiring employees and handling employee discrimination complaints.

The bus agency had been asking its human relations director to double as the equal employment director. But, Sweeney said, the FTA wanted someone independent of the bus service's human relations department.

A county agency with a $29-million budget and more than 400 employees should have had a full-time equal-employment officer a long time ago, Clark said. "It's kind of astounding" no one was hired sooner, he said.

If you consider the racial makeup of Pinellas County, Sweeney said, the PSTA has done a good job hiring and keeping minorities on staff. Ninety percent of Pinellas County residents are white, according to figures from county government officials. Blacks make up 6.3 percent, Hispanics 1.4 percent and Asians or American Indians 2 percent.

At the PSTA, 70 percent of employees are white and 19 percent are black, while Hispanics, Asians and American Indians round out the rest, according to June 1999 figures, the most recent figures the PSTA said it had.

"If you look at the picture, it's a good overall picture," Sweeney said.

Flowers said the PSTA can do better.

"We're not talking about the county, and sometimes you have to break above that," she said.

Clark said the agency should focus on getting more minority supervisors. Last year, 13 of the PSTA's 15 supervisors were white. There were six female supervisors last year; in 1995, there were only two.

"To me, that's where the EEO position comes in," he said. "It's more important to monitor the numbers on the management side. That's the key -- to recruit on the management side and the rank-and-file side."

PSTA board chairman and county Commissioner Calvin Harris said that although the PSTA is doing a "good job" hiring and keeping minorities and women on staff, he would like to see more job fairs and workshops.

If the agency doesn't do more to improve its numbers, Harris said, it could become known as a place that is unwelcome to minorities.

"We wanted to make sure that we did not got caught up in that trap that this was not a good place for minorities, and we have done a good job," he said.

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