VTA employees to receive raises, $ 3,500 bonus after year of unrest

After a devastating year that included cyber attacks that stranded passengers and the deadliest mass shooting in Bay Area history that claimed the lives of nine colleagues, the Valley Transportation Authority has a plan that it hopes She will boost employee morale: a $ 3,500 “appreciation” bonus as well as a 10% increase over the next three years.

South Bay streetcar and bus operator’s move is part of a new union contract deal designed to improve labor relations after year of unrest, but it will also increase labor costs $ 38 million over the next three years, according to VTA’s estimates. , and exacerbate a looming fiscal crisis.

On Tuesday evening, the VTA board of directors approved the new contract in an 11-1 vote with its largest union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents around 1,500 employees. This is the first union bargaining since the May 26 shooting at the Guadalupe rail yard and after a wave of complaints against VTA management for ignoring a toxic work culture and accusations of dysfunctional management prior to the shooting .

This smooth negotiating process saw no public abuse with a deal reached months before the September deadline. The process also marked a change from previous negotiations in 2018-19 which saw an impasse between the parties and halted new hires for more than a year.

“All of our employees, not just the drivers, have been through a lot this year,” said Stacey Hendler Ross, spokesperson for VTA. “It’s an effort to try to help employees develop and show them that we understand their value. “

For many, the new contract is a sigh of relief. With negotiations in the rear view, the VTA will not be locked into an acrimonious back-and-forth as the agency nears the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting and may consider reclaiming goodwill and revamping the workplace. .

“Everyone hired us as heroes, but they paid us zero,” said Armando Barbosa, an VTA bus driver. “It really helps to be compensated for the risk we take of being here in the community. “

For VTA critics, however, the deal rewards an already financially inflated agency that has long suffered from low footfall, high costs, and was dubbed by a 2019 Santa Clara Civil Grand Jury report as “the ‘one of the most expensive and least efficient transit systems in the country. “Amid the drop in ridership in 2020, the VTA subsidized each light rail passenger trip to the tune of $ 19.30 – a spending ratio per passenger more than double the BART.

Compared to other Bay Area transit operators facing an impending tax cliff, VTA is in a relatively stable financial position. They record a short-term budget surplus of $ 17 million, spurred by a strong pick-up in sales tax funds, which is the agency’s biggest source of revenue, and lower labor costs. forecast as the VTA scrambles to fill vacancies. But the agency is expected to record an annual deficit from this year that will reach tens of millions of dollars in the years to come, with only a declining pot of one-time federal relief money to keep the agency afloat until. in 2025.

“The fundamental problem is that even in good years we have a yawning operational deficit,” said San José Mayor Sam Liccardo, who sits on VTA’s board of directors and was the only board member to vote against. the contract. During Thursday’s meeting, Liccardo criticized the contract saying it “simply burns” excess federal money instead of investing it in solutions to the VTA’s budget problems. “We are not being honest with ourselves and the public about our capacity and what the public is willing to pay.”

These bonuses are by no means the first bonuses for public employees in the era of the pandemic. Santa Clara County distributed $ 76 million in “hero pay” to 22,000 county employees. The small town of Clayton, in Contra Costa County, is set to grant its 23 employees, including police officers and people who worked from home, $ 10,000 in bonuses from federal relief money surplus. Meanwhile, thousands of dollars in hiring bonuses are now commonplace for transit operators looking to attract new bus drivers amid staff shortages.

Under the contract, ATU members will receive a 2% raise in March of this year, followed by 4% increases in 2023 and 2024. The VTA has also agreed to review its starting salary for operators of bus and will not require increased contributions to the ATU’s $ 660 million. pension plan, a major sticking point in the last round of contract negotiations.

According to John Courtney, the latest round of negotiations marked a new working relationship between the union and VTA management, which CEO Carolyn Ganot took over in July. “The normal cycle of contract negotiations tends to be contentious – it creates a lot of angst for our pilots, drivers and mechanics, ”said Courtney. “Ganot was very open to entering into a contract before the [mass shooting ] anniversary and the September deadline, ”he said,“ His actions speak volumes. “

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