Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, bus drivers’ union at odds over pay scale | PostIndependent.com

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, bus drivers’ union at odds over pay scale

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Passengers load a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus. The organization and the union for bus drivers are in a dispute over pay issues in the latest collective bargaining agreement.
Aspen Times file photo

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority management and a union for year-round bus drivers are fighting over the interpretation of a wage scale covering the next three years.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1774 filed a grievance Jan. 10 alleging that RFTA isn’t honoring terms of the collective bargaining agreement the two sides approved in June.

“We made a proposition, and they signed off on it,” said driver Ed Cortez, president of the local union chapter, which represents about 160 drivers.

RFTA hasn’t formally responded to the grievance yet, but CEO Dan Blankenship said Monday management was “totally taken by surprise” by the union’s claim. RFTA felt the contract approved in June was clear-cut and included a wage scale that was fair to both sides.

“As clear as it can be stated, RFTA management did not agree to the union’s interpretation of the wage scale in June 2018,” Blankenship wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “However, we are committed to following the dispute resolution steps set forth in the [collective bargaining agreement] to get the matter resolved as amicably and rapidly as possible.”

Eligible drivers voted 65-22 in March 2015 to join the union. In December that year, they voted 76-0 to ratify a three-year contract their representatives negotiated with management. That covered numerous issues, including wages, from 2016-18.

The two sides negotiated a new, three-year collective bargaining agreement that was ratified by the union members and the RFTA board of directors in June. That covers 2019 through 2021.

The old contract created a wage progression that moved drivers into the upper end of the pay scale after 12 years. Cortez said that was a mistake on the union’s part because the pay was too low for drivers early in their tenure.

“We wanted all drivers above the poverty level, which is about $36,000,” he said.

The union wanted a progression that topped drivers out at an hourly wage after eight years, then made those at the upper end eligible for an annual bonus. RFTA wouldn’t go for that aggressive of progression, but approved a 10-year progression plan. The sides also agreed that the hourly wage for each year of service would go up by 2 percent annually. In other words, the pay for a driver in the third year of service will be 2 percent higher in 2020 than it is in 2019.

However, as the first pay period of January rolled closer, the union and RFTA management realized they had different interpretations of what was approved.

The dispute is over the method used to calculate years of service. RFTA management believed the collective bargaining agreement that was approved in June calculates years of service based on how many full years have been served as of Jan. 1 each year. Therefore, a person hired in April 2012 would be in the year 6 of service wage for 2019. In January 2013, that driver would be considered having less than one year of service. In January 2014, they would be considered operating on one year of service.

Union representatives told RFTA on Jan. 3 they interrupted the agreement differently. They said their proposal would mean a driver who was hired in April 2012 was starting the seventh year of service in 2019.

Under RFTA’s interpretation, the driver hired in April 2012 would be calculated as six years of service and see pay increase from $22.86 per hour to $24.85 this year, an increase of 8.7 percent.

Under the union’s interpretation, the driver would be considered at seven years of service and eligible for a pay increase from $22.86 to $25.68 per hour, an increase of 12.3 percent.

In essence, RFTA’s interpretation shortchanges service time by some number of months while the union’s interpretation accelerates it. Blankenship said RFTA prefers not to use an actual hiring anniversary to determine years of service to keep payroll issues simpler. Cortez declined comment when asked if a driver’s hiring date could be used to solve the dispute. He noted January is used at RFTA’s insistence.

Blankenship said in an interview RFTA management never would have advised approving a contract that compressed the top pay to 10 years from 12 years if it had realized the union was interpreting the years of service differently.

He said there is no reneging on RFTA management’s part. “We just wouldn’t do that,” he said.

Instead, it’s simply a difference of opinion over what was approved.

“There was no intention to mislead anybody — not the union, not the drivers, not the board of directors, not the public,” Blankenship said.

Cortez said the union representatives made their intent clear in negotiations.

“We thought, ‘Wow, this is really good, this was really easy. Let’s hope the rest of [the conditions] go like this,’” he said.

Cortez said drivers were alerted to the wage dispute late last week.

“They’re angry. They called you. I didn’t call you,” he noted.

A driver alerted The Aspen Times about the dispute. RFTA management received enough requests about pay for 2019 from drivers that it sent a memo to them on Monday that includes a matrix that shows pay over the next three years.

There is a procedure in place to resolve contract disputes. When the union files a grievance it goes to RFTA’s director of operations, who has 10 days to respond. If the union finds the response unsatisfactory, it can appeal to the direction of human resources, who gets 10 days to respond. If the union still finds the response unsatisfactory, the dispute would go to a third-party arbitrator.

Cortez said he hopes the dispute can be resolved through RFTA management and the union talking. If not, arbitration and possibly a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board will be explored, he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com