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IN TRANSITION

Ross Stores Inc. has depended on Harrisburg-based Capital Area Transit to bus temporary workers to the retailer’s distribution center in Carlisle for most of the past 15 years.

Ross Stores Inc. has depended on Harrisburg-based Capital Area Transit to bus temporary workers to the retailer’s distribution center in Carlisle for most of the past 15 years.

Public transportation is needed desperately at the center, said Mark Altmeyer, the center’s human-resources director. Because Cumberland County’s unemployment rate historically has been low, Ross has struggled to find workers, he said.

So the Pleasanton, Calif.-based business has relied on temporary employees from Dauphin County because it has higher unemployment. Staffing agencies pay to bus those 88 temps, most of whom live in Harrisburg, from as far as Steelton because they can’t commute otherwise. Temps make up about 13 percent of the center’s workforce.

Ross also counts on buses because warehouse workers can’t afford Cumberland County houses and because the county’s overall public-transportation network is poor, Altmeyer added.

Several employers in the county bus workers through Capital Area Transit, primarily to warehouses, said Bill Simpson, CAT’s director of operations. The employers include Borders Inc., Exel, Foot Locker Inc., Genco, Playtex Products Inc., Quality Packaging Inc. and Reckitt Benckiser. For each trip CAT runs, it asks each company to have its workers buy at least 30 monthly passes.

Nationwide, perhaps the business that has embraced employee busing the most is Google. The Internet-search-engine king buses about 1,200 employees to and from its headquarters in the Silicon Valley, which has some of the worst traffic in the U.S., according to a recent New York Times story.

In Cumberland County, many employers aren’t interested in using CAT, Simpson said.

“I had an employer say, ‘If an employee can’t drive here, they shouldn’t work for me,’” he recalled. “Many employers have no problem buying a building, creating a parking lot and providing spots. Why not pay for bus service, too?”

Cumberland County Economic Development tried to create a workforce-transit program in 2005, but it didn’t take off, said Omar Shute, the group’s executive director. The goal was to increase access for blue-collar workers countywide, said Doug Wendt, Shute’s predecessor, who left the county to form Wendt Communication Partners, a communications firm based in Harrisburg.

Other companies in Cumberland, such as Allen Distribution, have staffing agencies bus workers on the agencies’ vans.

“It ensures that we get the folks, and on a timely basis,” said Bill Burke, manager of human resources and safety at South Middleton Township-based Allen. Up to 20 temps are bused to and from the business. Allen doesn’t pay for the service.

Ross officials are concerned that they will have to bus more workers because multiple big warehouses are planned in Cumberland County, Altmeyer said (see “Supersize-warehouse projects planned,” this issue). Those buildings will keep unemployment there low and force his company to raise workers’ wages there to compete with the new facilities, he said.

Ross also worries that CAT on July 1 will reduce the operating hours of the route it created for the business, Altmeyer said.

Mass-transit agencies in Pennsylvania face budget crises beginning that day. CAT estimates that without more money from state government, the agency faces a $1.3 million shortfall. To offset the deficit, the agency would decrease service 15 percent and increase fares 25 percent. CAT’s operating hours would become 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

That would make Ross’ first-shift bus riders late for work and leave second-shift passengers without a ride home, Altmeyer said. First shift begins at 7 a.m., and second shift ends around 11 p.m. CAT’s potential service reduction also would make it tough for the off-price retailer to carry out its plan to add a third shift around Labor Day, he said.

Simpson suspects that CAT again will get the money it needs at the 11th hour because transit agencies face shortfalls every year, he said.

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