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Gopher Chauffeur faces staff shortage upon reopening this Fall

After closing their operation for a year due to the pandemic, the Gopher Chauffeur is now back in service, but currently facing a shortage of staff.
A Gopher Chauffeur driver makes their rounds on Feb. 5, 2012.

Boynton Health’s Gopher Chauffeur is back operating after suspending its service in March 2020 due to COVID-19. Despite facing the challenge of a staff shortage, Gopher Chauffeur continues to operate as they hope to gain more student employees.

Boynton’s Gopher Chauffeur is a free service providing car rides for students living on and around the University of Minnesota campus. According to Julie Senam, director of health promotion at Boynton, the number of rides has increased each year since the service first launched.

The service provided 8000 fewer rides in 2019-2020 than in the previous years. Now that the service is back in operation, during the past September through October, the Gopher Chauffeur has provided 1,701 rides, estimating around 150-200 rides per week, according to data from Senam. 

Due to the pandemic, the Gopher Chauffeur is facing a staff shortage. Manager James Schwartz said there are currently 21 student employees trained and providing the services for students. There are an additional 12 students in training, making a total of 32 student employees by next month.

“Unfortunately, that’s not enough. We are looking towards 50 students to provide this service because in-person classes are operating, more students would use the service,” Schwartz said.

When Gopher Chauffeur suspended the service due to the pandemic, there was no longer work for the employees. Many of the student employees graduated before the service started to operate again during fall 2021. These students were paid for what they would have worked in the spring of 2020.

During the summer, Senam and Schwartz were notified the service would be back in operation in fall 2021, but that there were not enough employees since most graduated. They ended up with five student drivers who wanted to continue working this fall, which was less than they thought.

“There are five vans available for the service, and each van requires two employees per van, yet, we still do not have enough available students to provide the service,” Schwartz said.

“I work on campus every Saturday ‘till almost midnight, so I use the Gopher Chauffeur service to ride home,” said second-year mechanical engineering student Khoa Le.

Le said the service is convenient for him since the Gopher Chauffeur brings him straight to his home from his workplace. However, Le said in his experience the wait time to use the Gopher Chauffeur service has been approximately 20-60 minutes.

According to the Senam and Schwartz, they have not seen increased wait times due to the pandemic but they have seen fewer riders total right now as compared to before the pandemic.

“I believe the waiting time for the Gopher Chauffeur would decrease if they have more staff working in each shift, and if possible, the area would be expanded as well,” Le said.

In this situation, the service is in high demand and there are not enough employees to provide the services for students in need. Shortage of staff has been an issue for college campuses and workplaces across the United States.

According to the National Education Association, closing campuses because of the pandemic laid off thousands of students — many colleges and universities reopened this fall with staff shortages that included work sites such as dining halls, residence halls and more.

In addition, the pay for Gopher Chauffeur is divided into two different positions: the Gopher driver receives $13 an hour and the team lead receive $15 an hour.

“This is a great service. I am glad it’s available to students who are looking for safe rides home at night, especially during the winter,” Le said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Julie Sanem. It also included an incorrect spelling of her last name. Additionally, the previous story misrepresented how Boynton handled pay and employment for student workers during the pandemic; students were no longer able to work due to the Gopher Chauffeur service being shut down temporarily, but were paid for that time period. 

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