Summit County negotiating new contract with transit union as route cuts sting local workers
The statewide shortage of qualified transit drivers has hit Summit County, with late night cuts the Summit Stage county-run bus service causing a lot of inconvenience for some local workers who have relied on it to get home.
The route cuts also pose a safety risk, with the potential for more late night partiers to attempt to drive after drinking rather than waiting an extra hour for a bus ride. The scenario may compound the drunk driving problem in Summit, which has the fifth highest rate of drunk driving offenses in Colorado.
The root of the problem is in Summit County’s incredibly high cost of living, which leads to a remarkably low unemployment rate hovering around 1.6% — the lowest in the state. Employers need to make the pay worth it for the relatively small pool of qualified, skilled and responsible workers.
Robin Erkenbrack, a Summit Stage bus driver, is a representative for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1751, the local trade union for transit workers which has been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the county.
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The existing agreement, a six-year contract, is set to expire in June 2020, but the county had agreed to open negotiations early in order to try to address the driver crunch.
“We’re doing some negotiation, and it’s taking longer than what any of us would have wanted,” Erkenbrack said. “As far as the shortage, we came to the tipping point with the busy season approaching, and we’re short on drivers. Some of the drivers were involved when the schedule was being made, and understood the need to make necessary cuts. It’s a tough thing, nobody wants it. We really wish we could hire more drivers.”
Erkenbrack said that while pay was not the only issue in negotiations, it was a fairly difficult issue the parties have been working to meet in the middle on. He said the drivers deserve the higher pay they’re seeking, and wanted the public to know how demanding their job is to justify it.
Bus drivers work very early mornings and very late nights, with long shifts in between. All day they must safely transport hundreds of people all across the county, maintaining high focus and concentration. They must also do some manual labor to keep their buses maintained and to help passengers with luggage and other items.
Bus drivers also act as de facto security for passengers, ensuring their physical safety on board as well as escorting them and helping disabled or elderly passengers off the bus in the event of mechanical failure or an accident.
The bus routes often travel the most dangerous roads in the area, such as the ones traversing Hoosier and Fremont pass, along with Swan Mountain Road. Drivers are also often counted on to be available to work overtime, weekends and holidays, often without notice, with schedules changing dynamically based on conditions.
U.S. Department of Transportation regulations also require intensive drug and alcohol testing that prohibits marijuana use, in accordance with federal law.
“I think it’s just hard to recruit for this type of job, and it hasn’t attracted a whole lot of people,” Erkenbrack said.
To make the job more attractive, pay needs to align with what drivers want. The Summit Stage currently offers a starting wage of $18.50 an hour, with fairly robust benefits package including a full-service health insurance plan with vision and dental, a pension plan, paid time off, short-term disability and periodic bonuses.
The benefits are dependent on whether the position is full-time, part-time or seasonal, with part-time workers qualifying for benefits when they drive more than 20 hours a week. A commercial driver’s license is preferred, but if an otherwise qualified driver does not have the license, the county will pay for CDL training — as most transit authorities do.
As the driver shortage makes obvious, that package hasn’t been enough to attract enough drivers.
“The county is certainly behind on where we should be when it comes to pay,” Erkenbrack said.
But he echoed Transit Director Curtis Garner’s point that the pay isn’t the only factor to consider, as the different benefit packages offered by each employer makes it hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison with other transit services.
For example, the Town of Breckenridge’s Free Ride bus service, which has also been forced to cancel trips on occasion, advertises pay between $17.50 to $19.60 an hour, depending on experience and qualifications. The job also offers a few perks, such as free recreation passes and merit-based pay for returning drivers, and the possibility of town-subsidized employee housing. However, the job does not offer health insurance, paid time off or a pension plan in its job listing.
Summit School District, which has also been beset by a school bus driver shortage, offers starting pay of $17.98 to $27.87 an hour depending on experience. The district also offers full health and retirement benefits. The more stringent requirements of school bus drivers restricts the pool of people who can apply.
Copper Mountain Resort’s free shuttle service offers a higher pay of $22 an hour to CDL licensed drivers. Copper Mountain Director of Employee Experience Kelly Renoux said that the benefits offered to drives include shift meals, athletic club access and employee housing. However, that job also does not offer health insurance, a pension plan or paid time off. The seasonal nature of the resort also means that some positions are temporary.
Looking outside of Summit, the town of Vail’s bus service recently advertised $21 an hour for pay, but did not include details about the benefits package. No positions are currently available.
The Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which operates between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, advertises wages starting at $19.85 an hour, increasing to $20.25 an hour in 2020. Full-time drivers get $20.67 an hour, and there are significant end of season pay bonuses. The benefits package includes a full ski pass, housing opportunities and housing, and a more robust benefits package for full-time drivers after a certain period which includes health, life, retirement, dental and vision.
On the Front Range, the beleaguered Regional Transportation District operating in the Aurora-Denver-Boulder markets offers starting pay between $19.98 to $25.31 an hour, depending on experience, with a condition-dependent $2,000 hiring bonus and full benefits package. As has been seen with the dozens of cancellations on RTD’s light rail service, their package has not been attractive enough to recruit more drivers.
Erkenbrack noted that one big sticking point with the current agreement with Summit County is the wage scale structure — how much money bus drivers get in pay bumps over time. He said that the Free Ride and other transit jobs might not have much more competitive starting pay or benefits packages, but do pay drivers more over time than what Summit Stage does — several times more. A new, better wage structure is one of the main items being negotiated with the county, along with working conditions.
Aside from pay, wage scale and working conditions, Erkenbrack said the union is also suggesting the county offers some of the “shiny” perks that other services do, such as ski or recreation center passes, but emphasized that the paycheck is the overriding priority for the extremely high cost of living in Summit.
From his perspective, Erkenbrack said the negotiations with the county have been going well, and he is hopeful a breakthrough is in sight that can alleviate the driver shortage.
“The county has been fairly reasonable working with us,” Erkenbrack said, agreeing with Garner that there is no serious labor dispute between the parties. “I really do think the new agreement will help hire more drivers. We’ve explained what the drivers want when it comes to pay and the wage structure, and we’re going to work out a deal very shortly. We’re just working out final numbers.”
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