RFTA makes a million-dollar labor decision

Board approves new deal with drivers’ union

A RFTA driver drops off passengers at the Smuggler stop on the Hunter Creek Loop route in Aspen on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority decided it is worth $1 million to retain existing workers and entice future employees in an extremely tough labor market.

RFTA’s board of directors approved a collective bargaining agreement last week with the bus drivers’ union. As part of the deal, RFTA agreed to spend an estimated $1.1 million more than what would have been spent under the old agreement over the next three years, according to a memo to RFTA’s board of directors from CEO Dan Blankenship.

Under the old deal, there was a baseline agreement for a 2% annual increase in wages for drivers. That would have cost RFTA about $1.28 million between January and December 2024.

Instead, RFTA’s negotiating team and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774 agreed to a deal with higher wage increases over a three-and-a-half year period starting July 1. That will add $1.1 million to labor expenses for drivers, above the $1.28 million, Blankenship’s memo said.

Drivers will collectively receive about $515,000 in raises this year.

Blankenship and his staff recommended approval of the agreement.

“The increase in wages in July 2021 should greatly enhance RFTA’s Bus Operator recruitment and retention efforts this summer and heading into the 2021-22 winter season,” said a RFTA staff overview of the agreement. “The increase should improve Bus Operator morale at a time when a boost is needed.”

Representatives of the union said prior to the negotiations that they felt hazard pay was warranted for the conditions drivers faced throughout the pandemic. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t refer to hazard pay, but drivers will get an immediate bump this month.

Drivers in the union voted 57-1 to accept the agreement June 25. Ed Cortez, president of the chapter and chief negotiator, said at the time that drivers would receive wage hikes of between 9% and 11%. Starting pay was increased from $21.08 to $23.51.

The deal creates a schedule of increases, which will be given Jan. 1 each year.

RFTA’s goal is to have 190 drivers for the summer.

Businesses throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond are facing a severe worker shortage. Labor advocates contend that businesses must pay higher wages to reflect the higher cost of living in the valley. Pay is only part of the equation with affordable housing nearly impossible to find, business owners have said.