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.
For the commuting women, the bus has become more than just a daily commute; it has become a community. They have added personal touches and filled the overhead compartments with pillows and blankets. The years of commuting have also sparked close friendships.
”We’re all in the same situation,” said Claudia Schmid. “Of course, we speak a lot about work on the drive back.” The 42-year-old, who serves as a chaperone, is paid a small fee to ensure the bus runs smoothly and takes care of any niggling issues along the way.
“People either quit commuting very quickly or do it for a long time,” Ms. Schmid said. Born in Vienna, she moved out of the city decades ago to Styria because of a relationship. Even after her divorce and suddenly becoming responsible for two kids aged 12 and 13, she refused to move back to the big city. “That would have destroyed their circle of friends,” she said.
So for the last seven years, Ms. Schmid has been riding the bus and taking care of the other passengers. She even organizes the annual Christmas party in Sankt Merian, the first stop on the morning commute and the last stop in the evenings.
Mr. Nagele, the Billa director, is familiar with the route. He joined the group once to experience the commute himself. “I saw at that time what an incredible effort our employees make,” he said.
The commuters are granted one day off by law for every day they make the trip. Monthly wages for the roughly 30-hour work week are about €1,500 ($2,025).
“Mobility is generally seen as a private affair. Employers don’t consider themselves responsible,”
While the shuttle buses can benefit both sides, such services are rare for the estimated 2.1 million commuters in Austria. Only one in 800 people polled said they took such a company-provided bus to work, according to Thomas Hader, a transportation expert at the Vienna-based Austrian Employees Association, a group that represents workers.
“Mobility is generally seen as a private affair. Employers don’t consider themselves responsible,” said Mr. Hader, adding that support for the unemployed is especially lacking. “Many simply can’t afford a car. That means they have trouble reaching any potential workplace.”
Johann Kalliauer, president of the Chamber of Labor, said buses such as those provided by the Rewe Group are a “relic from an earlier time.” Most of them were suspended in the 1990s.
Kalliauer said he is pushing for expanded public transportation options instead, as many workers these days work on staggered shifts, making it difficult to provide company buses. “Public transportation would work much better than a company bus in these situations,” said Kalliauer.
“We started running the buses in the 1980s because there were not enough skilled workers in Vienna. These commuters are a reliable part of our company.”
At 7 a.m., the Rewe Group bus made a hard turn at the highway exit for Altmannsdorf. For the women in the bus, it served as a wake-up call. Arms were stretched to the ceiling, while one woman yawned and looked out the window as if hoping to keep this moment in time a little longer.
The bus arrived at Altmannsdorfer Strasse in the Vienna district of Meidling. Maria rubbed her eyes as she stepped out of the bus, and a cheery look came across her face. She was already wearing the red polo shirt with the company logo on it, ready to take up her job directing the delicatessen section of a Billa supermarket in nearby Ottakring. She is the only section head who takes the bus, and does it six times a week – the result of an old contract where the law requiring days off in between did not apply.
“On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I go home early and take the train,” she said, but other than that she has little time to herself. Maria doesn’t seem to mind. “You get used to it,” she said, shrugging her shoulders
Christopher Cermak translated the story into English.