Bus agency proposes pay increase for new drivers as talks loom with union | AspenTimes.com

Bus agency proposes pay increase for new drivers as talks loom with union

Ed Cortez, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774, represented bus drivers in collective bargaining with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

Just weeks before labor negotiations are scheduled to start between the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and a union for bus drivers, the staff is proposing to boost pay for new hires.

But the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774 warned Thursday that RFTA's intentions could cause more harm than good. Ed Cortez said the bus agency should increase the pay across the board for drivers of all levels of experience, not just new hires.

RFTA is looking at increasing the starting wage for new drivers from $18 to $18.61 for next year.

"Historically, the high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley has negatively affected the authority's ability to hire and retain qualified transit personnel," said a draft budget memo from the staff to RFTA's board of directors. "Combined with today's stronger economy, the authority faces increased challenges to attract and maintain adequate staffing levels."

RFTA performed a compensation review by surveying other organizations last month. The survey indicated RFTA needed to boost pay for new drivers and offer a higher merit-pay increase that employees are eligible for at their annual reviews. The staff recommended awarding merit pay increases of as much as 4 percent for most positions.

No decision was made by the board of directors Thursday on the staff's recommendation. The budget won't be voted on until December. Cortez attended the meeting but didn't speak on the proposed pay hike for new drivers.

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Outside the meeting, Cortez said raising the pay of new drivers will irritate the union's ranks. RFTA is in the process of hiring 40 new drivers, he said. If their pay is established at $18.61, they will be making about the same as drivers who have been at RFTA for a few years. That creates an inequity, he said, and it needs to be addressed by raising the pay for all drivers or reaching some other agreement with the drivers' union.

Contract negotiations are expected to begin at the end of November. Those talks could have implications on RFTA's 2016 budget. RFTA board Chairwoman Stacey Bernot recommended the board wait to approve its final budget until December, after the talks with the union have started.

"We'll have a better picture of what's being asked and what the spectrum may be," she said. The other board members agreed.

Full-time bus drivers voted 65-22 in March to join the union.

RFTA is in the process of hiring Thomas Hock to represent it in the collective bargaining talks. Hock has a history of working for transit agencies in labor talks. Cortez asked the RFTA board a month ago to avoid hiring the alleged "union buster." On Thursday, Cortez urged the board of directors to appoint one of its members to sit in on the negotiations to observe tactics being used on its behalf. The board didn't act on the request.

RFTA and its employees got good news on a different financial front. The staff anticipated a 10 percent increase in medical premiums, but the agency's health care provider recently disclosed there will be a 5 percent reduction with no changes in coverage.

RFTA also is budgeting a 3 percent increase in sales tax revenue, based on projections among its eight-member jurisdictions. RFTA doesn't anticipate raising fares for its regular service in 2016 and no significant cuts in service are anticipated. The fare could increase for the buses to the Maroon Bells, according to CEO Dan Blankenship. He said bus service was increased this summer at the request of the U.S. Forest Service. For example, there were 13 buses running the Maroon Bells route on a busy weekend during leaf-peeping season. In the past there were just five buses, he said.

RFTA is spending more on providing the service, so it might have to look at increasing the $6 fare, Blankenship said. A meeting between the Forest Service, RFTA, Aspen Skiing Co. and Pitkin County will help settle the issue.

RFTA is looking at a $31.8 million operating budget.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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