As GRTC prepares for bus service cuts due to a driver shortage, union member employees are demanding better pay and opposing the transit company’s plan to subsidize Uber rides for some passengers.
Members of Amalgamated Transit Union 1220, which represents bus drivers and other GRTC employees, staged protests outside the company’s headquarters last week, with a few dozen people raising concerns about driver and passenger safety, employee pay and alleged violations of the union’s labor agreement with GRTC management.
Maurice Carter, president of the ATU 1220, said Tuesday that the protests had stopped after a meeting with GRTC officials on Monday night, but that issues must be resolved soon to alleviate the bus system’s labor crisis that’s challenged the reliability of local public transit.
“We need to work together to make this a better company. ... I want it to get back to where it was when I started here in ’87,” said Carter. “The way the company is being run, people just don’t want to stay here. I’m a second-generation GRTC employee, and right now, the atmosphere the way it is, I wouldn’t recommend it for one of my kids.”
In a board meeting Tuesday, GRTC CEO Julie Timm said she met with union representatives Monday night and discussed several plans to resolve their concerns, including new safety measures, bonus pay opportunities and a commitment to regular meetings each month.
“It was a very productive meeting,” she said. “I left very optimistic.”
Despite those commitments and vows to continue working with the union, the GRTC Board of Directors still approved plans for the company to pilot a partnership with Uber to subsidize vouchers for customers to use the mobile ride-sharing application for trips between bus stops before 6 a.m. or after 11 p.m. Timm said the partnership will help passengers when the expected bus service cuts go into effect. Union members say they fear the program is outsourcing work they should be doing, and warned that Uber drivers may not be as reliable for passengers.
The protests add to recent turbulence for GRTC after a recent fatal shooting on a bus and a complaint from the union about a driver who they said was unfairly suspended following a violent altercation with a passenger last month. Timm later apologized and approved back pay for the employee’s one-day suspension.
GRTC officials said they are preparing to implement new training and safety measures. Carter said the union has also advocated for an increased law enforcement presence on buses, including the possibility of a transit-specific police force. Timm said she would soon ask local government officials about having uniformed police on buses as part of their regular patrol duties.
Union workers, who are also subject to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that Timm suspects could lead to some turnover, said higher wages could help retain drivers.
Carter and GRTC officials said some ideas were discussed Monday about improving bonus pay, but that nothing new has been added to GRTC’s current plan to offer $5,000 and $8,500 bonuses to new drivers and mechanics. The company also is planning to give discretionary bonuses to help retain employees, as well as $500 bonuses for all employees who are vaccinated.
Timm told the GRTC Board of Directors on Tuesday that the company still has a Nov. 24 deadline for its employees to get the shot, but that management has altered its discipline policy to give “a grace period” for employees who has received at least one dose or who tested positive within the last 90 days. She said there are currently 70 out of the company’s 450 employees have not been fully vaccinated or reported their status to management. She said about half of them have at least one dose.
A federal appeals court has challenged President Joe Biden’s mandate for public sector agencies and companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccinations or weekly tests for their employees. Timm said GRTC is still monitoring the case, but that a January deadline could still hold if the federal order remains in place.
“Definitely anyone not fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 ... does risk termination,” she said. “Our goal is zero terminations, zero suspensions. We hope that we will get there.”
Carter said the union has also been concerned about GRTC’s proposed route schedule plans and operational procedures violating terms of its contract with GRTC, but declined to discuss specifics about it. Carrie Rose Pace, a spokeswoman for the GRTC, said the company has been working with the union in recent months to address its concerns about staffing on “interlined routes” such as the 1A, 1B and 1C, and that both sides are still discussing the matter.
Despite the labor disagreements, Carter said passengers should not worry about work stoppages anytime soon.