Hazard pay, face mask requirements, and bus drivers testing positive for COVID-19 are issues that came to the fore after a labor action by GRTC bus drivers in April.
The last week of April was a busy week for the GRTC. On Monday April 27, 40 GRTC workers called out sick and refused to come into work, according to a tweet from GRTC CEO Julie Timm. This caused severe delays for riders, some of which are essential workers who depend on public transit to get to their jobs.
GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace said the company believes the coordinated “call-out” is in response to a conflict over hazard pay for bus drivers during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a story written by VPM.
GRTC bus drivers and mechanics are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1220. On April 20, local union president Maurice Carter made a list of 10 demands in a letter sent to Timm. Demands included the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to every GRTC worker, pandemic leave for anyone exposed to COVID-19, temporary elimination of fares and requirement of rear-door entry in order to support social distancing, and requiring passengers to wear masks.
According to the Richmond Free Press, Carter stated that the April 27 call-out protest had been spontaneous and unsanctioned by the union, launched in response to GRTC not complying with a union request to require all passengers wear face masks.
Although GRTC says it has met most of the demands, one demand, for a hazard-related increase in pay, was not met, as GRTC officials claimed that money for such an increase was not available in their budget.
Later Monday evening after the strike, Timm sent a letter to union president Maurice Carter, encouraging employees to return to work with a reminder that the strike violated several points in the agreement between GRTC and the union. The letter also said that “Any operator who does not return to work on Tuesday or their next designated work assignment will be subject to immediate termination.”
GRTC operations were back to normal on Tuesday, but Timm took to Twitter to break down the $0.50 pay increase requested in the ATU letter. “$0.50/hr equals $250K– my authorized emergency spending limit outside the budget process,” she tweeted. “We started processing that as a lump sum bonus of $500 for all operators last Friday. It is not, and is not intended to be, hazard pay.”
The next GRTC Board of Directors meeting is on May 19, and at that meeting, according to Pace, hazard pay will be discussed. The GRTC board has to approve hazard pay before the company’s leadership can offer that benefit.
“These brave people should be paid as if they are essential to the needs of the public,” Carter said in a statement. Referring to over $32 million granted to GRTC by the federal government through the CARES Act, he continued, “With the CARES Act funding, GRTC can pay theses frontline workers and immediately purchase and deliver the critical safety protections needed to continue to provide strategic transit service.”
That brings us to Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, April 29, GRTC announced that one of their bus drivers had been afflicted with COVID-19 “from an unknown source.” According to the release, the employee had experienced only mild symptoms. While this was the first case of a GRTC bus operator testing positive, another GRTC employee had previously been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Then, on Friday, May 1, GRTC issued a service alert cautioning riders of possible delays while some operators took paid leave to be tested for COVID-19. The alert requested that riders try to make alternate plans for all essential trips within the following two days.
At around the same time, the GRTC announced that the $32 million in funding it had received through the CARES Act would allow it to keep fares free until at least June 30. While the policy asking that riders use GRTC only for essential trips remains in place, and is currently advertised on the buses’ digital front marquee, this cash infusion from the federal government makes it possible for GRTC to continue to operate at full capacity — at least as long as employees are able to continue working.
However, the positive tests and the call-out protest make clear the sort of strain that GRTC employees are operating under, and that further issues may still arise. Carter stated that GRTC employees offer essential support in keeping our economy running during a precarious time, and should be adequately compensated for their efforts.
“Our members are the life-blood of our transit system. They are risking their lives daily to ensure that our riders have access to essential trips,” Carter said in a statement. “They should be treated as heroes in the fight against this pandemic.”
Additional reporting by Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo via GRTC/Facebook