RFTA bus drivers’ union wants hazard pay for work during COVID-19 pandemic | AspenTimes.com

RFTA bus drivers’ union wants hazard pay for work during COVID-19 pandemic

Bus agency CEO raises several concerns about request

The union representing bus drivers at Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will ask management Friday to provide hazard pay for work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ed Cortez, president and business agent for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774, said Wednesday the chapter would seek an increase in hourly pay, a lump sum bonus or a combination of the two. Details such as how far back the pay would go and how much it would put the in pockets of bus drivers has to be worked out, he said.

“A lot of people don’t realize the dangerous situation drivers have been in over the last year,” Cortez said. “It’s prevalent and dangerous. As front-line workers, we’re subjected to it every day.”

The union feels that RFTA can afford the hazard pay since it received a healthy chunk of change from the federal government to help offset financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

However, RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said the issue is complicated. While RFTA was awarded $19.25 million in grants through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, there are strings attached to spending the funds.

It appears that expending funds from the relief act on hazard pay needed to be subject to an agreement made prior to the hazard or incentive pay, according to the frequently asked questions sections of the Federal Transit Administration’s website, Blankenship said.

“So it could not be retroactive,” he said Wednesday.

Cortez said the union did not seek hazard pay last year when the pandemic arose because of the financial uncertainty facing the organization.

Now, he said, the union is seeking hazard pay that rewards bus drivers for their work and loyalty without breaking the bank for RFTA.

“It should be a bonus or a reward for drivers who risked everything to keep the buses going,” Cortez said.

Blankenship said on-duty risks were higher when the pandemic started than they were soon after, when safety protocols were put in place. RFTA, with input from the union, took steps such as requiring social distancing among passengers, mandatory masks, minimizing direct contact between drivers and passengers and installing Plexiglas “sneeze shields” around the driver’s station on buses. RFTA also cleans buses after each shift with a virucide. Public health requirements currently limit capacity on buses to 50%.

RFTA lead mechanic Will Fabela, right, and Patricia Rosales Trigo disinfect a bus at the Aspen Maintenance Facility on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

When COVID-19 hit the region in March 2020, RFTA was carrying about 18,000 passengers per day. This winter, it averaged about half that daily number, according to Blankenship.

“Since the pandemic began, RFTA has worked very hard to provide a safe work environment for all of its employees, to support them with full paychecks when they became infected by COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus or had their shifts eliminated, and to maintain their jobs by continuing to provide essential transit services upon which the public relies,” Blankenship said via email.

Currently, the organization has two employees out of work for COVID-related reasons, though neither has tested positive at this point. RFTA employs about 385 workers in all departments. RFTA also is offering a $500 bonus for employees to get the COVID vaccination. About 60% of employees were partially or fully vaccinated as of mid-April.

“At this point, I think it might be more challenging to make the argument for hazard pay when so few people at RFTA are out of work for COVID-19 symptoms or possible exposure and when approximately 60 percent of the workforce has been vaccinated,” Blankenship said. “A fair number of front-line employees still have not taken advantage of the vaccination incentive bonus and, if they did so, we believe it would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the hazard or risk they face of contracting the virus, whether on duty or off duty.”

Cortez countered that front-line workers “aren’t out of the woods yet.” Even those who have been vaccinated can be subject to illness from a variant, he noted, and bus drivers can be subjected to COVID at a moment’s notice.

Cortez said 24 bus drivers “went down” because of COVID-related issues. Nearly all of them recovered and returned to work. A total of 51 RFTA employees missed some work because of COVID.

Another eight full-time drivers didn’t feel comfortable reporting for work once the pandemic struck due to medical issues, according to Cortez.

No RFTA employees are currently being paid hazard pay because of COVID, according to Blankenship. If hazard pay were offered to one department, such as drivers, it would raise a fairness issue.

“Typically, RFTA would want to make any incentives it would provide to one segment of the workforce available to other segments of the workforce,” Blankenship said. Nearly all workers of the organization qualify as front-line because their jobs put them in close proximity to the public or coworkers, he said.

If the drivers’ union fails to secure hazard pay for their work during the pandemic, it could potentially set up tougher negotiations in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774’s next collective bargaining agreement. The current three-year agreement with RFTA expires Dec. 31. Among the issues the local union representatives and RFTA management will discuss Friday are timing of negotiations for the next agreement. A big part of the discussions is always the pay rate for drivers.

(Editor’s note: This story corrected information to show that 24 drivers missed time on the job due to COVID-19. A source in the story originally said 51 drivers were affected.)


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