Wellington's bus network is short of up to 50 drivers, which is fuelling a spate of recent cancellations.
Last Wednesday there were as many as 70 last-minute cancellations, leaving some passengers with a familiar feeling of the 2018 bustastrophe.
The shortage comes as the Tramways Union and operator NZ Bus wrangle over a collective agreement while Greater Wellington Regional Council tries to implement a living wage for drivers.
The regional council hopes this new wage floor will be seen as an improvement of terms and conditions, which will help attract and retain the number of drivers required to operate a reliable network.
Metlink general manager Scott Gallacher told the Herald an extra 40 to 50 drivers across the network would build more resilience in a Covid-19 environment.
Ultimately it was up to operators to ensure there were enough available drivers, he said.
Drivers are facing fatigue after a year operating as essential workers in the pandemic.
Many are above the age of 60, making them a more vulnerable group, and are taking sick days if they are feeling unwell in line with the Government's Covid-19 messaging.
"Over the last 12 months, as we have operated in a Covid-19 environment, our drivers have been at the forefront in providing an essential service throughout a pandemic response. They do an amazing job and provide an excellent service for the region's communities", Gallacher said.
Metlink data shows there has been a surge in cancellations in recent months, increasing from 545 cancellations in January to 1213 in March.
More than 96,000 services went ahead in March, so the number of cancellations that month represent a fraction of overall services.
Regardless, it creates frustration from those commuters relying on the services to go about their daily lives.
"While the overwhelming majority of our services and passengers continue to be unaffected by a recent trend of cancellations on some city services, I want to thank passengers that are affected for their patience as we continue to work with our operators to turn this around", Gallacher said.
At least 318 bus drivers, about half of all drivers, are employed at base rates below the living wage across the network under the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM).
The living wage is currently set at $22.10 per hour.
PTOM was introduced under the previous National government to incentivise commerciality.
But unions around the country have slammed it, saying bus drivers' pay packets have borne the brunt of a council tendering process that incentivises bus companies to cut wages in order to offer the cheapest tender to council contracts for bus routes.
Metlink has been working with Transport Minister Michael Wood, NZTA Waka Kotahi, unions and bus operators to usher in changes to base rates to reflect the living wage now and in the future.
This will cost up to $1.85 million per year. The cost will be shared between the council and Waka Kotahi and split 49/51 per cent respectively.
This comes at a time when NZ Bus and the Tramways Union are in the middle of negotiating their now expired collective agreement.
Last Wednesday, the same day as the 70 last-minute cancellations, Tramways Union Wellington secretary Kevin O'Sullivan said there was a complete and irreparable breakdown in the negotiations.
O'Sullivan said the company's proposal would see members take a substantial cut in wages and conditions of employment.
It's understood NZ Bus wants to move Wellington drivers to a collective agreement similar to its Auckland ones where the base rate is higher but trade-offs are made like lower penal rates.
An NZ Bus spokesperson said they supported drivers in Wellington being paid the living wage.
They said under the terms they were proposing all drivers would immediately be paid a base hourly rate of even more than that at $23.75.
"We are also proposing to keep penal rates for drivers working in excess of 40 hours a week and when working rostered days off. This collective is already working well in Auckland.
"We believe we have offered a good deal for all our drivers, but to get a deal that works for everyone will require give and take from all parties."
The union has scheduled a stop-work meeting for April 14 to discuss the next actions on the matter with workers.