It is 4:20 a.m. Most residents of Kindberg, located in the southeastern Austrian town of Mürztal, are still in a deep sleep. The smell of freshly fertilized fields is wafting through the empty streets. The hills are only barely visible over the horizon.
A she does five days a week, Julia, who asked to be identified only by her first name, was already standing at a street corner, waiting for the shuttle bus. “Morning,” she mumbled to the driver as she shuffled into a seat near the front of the bus. She fell asleep as the bus drove down the road.
Kindberg is a sleepy town. A few dozen businesses, a couple of guest houses, a few schools and a library provide for a population of 5,500. Those who have grown up there and seek employment are typically forced either to move elsewhere or to commute. Unemployment in the region was 5.6 percent in June. More than half of the employed residents – 1,307 – commute to work daily or leave on Monday and return on Friday.
For Julia, the shuttle bus is her only connection to the working world. It is paid for by Rewe Group, a supermarket conglomerate. On this particular day, a total 27 cashiers and assistants were on the shuttle bus, which drove through the Austrian regions of Styria and Burgenland.
Shortly after 7 a.m., the bus pulled up to a Billa supermarket in Vienna, Austria’s capital city, which is about 130 kilometers northeast of Julia’s home.
After the store closes, the bus picks up the employees and brings them home. Those living in Styria will not be home until about 10:30 p.m. That means Julia spends five about hours every day on the shuttle bus. She also works a 12-hour day, with a three-hour break in the middle.
The Billa buses have been driving through this region for 23 years. Eight buses crisscross Styria, Burgenland and Upper Austria, taking a total of 350 employees to outlets in Vienna and Linz.
“We started running the buses in the 1980s because there were not enough skilled workers in Vienna,” said Robert Nagele, director of operations at Billa.
Even though the shortages of skilled labor in the Austrian capital may have eased since then, the shuttle buses continue to operate. “It’s become a tradition – we don’t want to change it now,” Mr. Nagele said. “These commuters are a reliable part of our company.”
The cost of the buses hasn’t changed either; they have always been free for employees. For each commuter, the company pays the equivalent per year of about two months of their employees’ salary.