Lansing bus drivers cry foul amid union contract dispute at CATA 

Negotiations persist more than a year after bargaining agreement expires

Posted

FRIDAY, Feb. 26 — Hundreds of bus drivers and mechanics at the Capital Area Transportation Authority are still working without a formal union contract this week while negotiations persist more than a year after their last collective bargaining agreement expired. 

And while union leaders say they have reached an impasse over policies on overtime wages and paid time off, CATA executives contend changes from the last contract are necessary to prevent “excessive” six-figure salaries for bus drivers and to fix decades of financial mistakes. 

“It’s an unsustainable model that we cannot do. The era of the side deal is over,” said CATA CEO Brad Funkhouser, who was appointed in 2018 to replace Sandy Dragoo after 32 years. “If I was making $120,000 on a $56,000 salary and that got pulled back, I’d be upset about it too.” 

CATA, which is funded in part by a recently reauthorized public tax, has faced criticism in recent years after the public transit authority was found to have paid 39 of its employees salaries in excess of $100,000 between 2016 and 2019 — most of which was in the form of overtime for bus drivers. Reports also showed that CATA’s legal expenses, which tallied nearly $500,000 in 2016, were routinely higher than other public transit authorities.  

Funkhouser said he was hired largely to clean up CATA’s financial house — including through some major adjustments to a union contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1039, which encompasses about 260 local bus drivers and mechanics employed by CATA this year.  

In 2020, only one bus driver made more than $100,000, he said. Delinquent payroll taxes have been paid. Legal bills are down. A new union contract is among the final pieces of his puzzle. 

“The overlap was the last contract, which I had to carry for three years. We now have an opportunity to right-size this, fix this and make this work for the public,” Funkhouser explained. “The contract is expired. Some of the things in that past contract will not be offered in the next contract. That’s just something that the union is going to have to either accept or not accept.” 

Negotiations on a new contract began as the last agreement expired on Nov. 30, 2019. For the last 15 months, both sides have gone back and forth through more than 100 different proposals that span more than 1,000 pages. And this week, bus drivers feel they’ve reached a stalemate.  

“This is union busting — plain and simple,” said long-time bus driver and Union President Steve Soliz. “Some of the only items we want here are things that have been in our contracts for years, decades even. Now, they’ve decided they don’t want to honor them. We just want to come back to the table and to be able to negotiate through these items. They won’t budge.” 

After the last contract expired, stopgap “bridge” agreements have kept the existing collective bargaining agreement in place. In June, CATA petitioned for a state-sanctioned factfinder to sort out the stickier points as negotiations continued. His recommendations were filed this month. 

When both sides return to the bargaining table within the next two weeks, CATA and the union can choose to accept or reject those recommendations. But after 60 days, CATA can legally start making contractual changes regardless of whether it reaches a consensus with the union.  

And a strike isn’t a legal possibility for public transit employees, Soliz explained. 

“At that point, they can sort of force our hands into something we don’t want to do. It could all start to get really messy really quickly, and that’s also something we don’t want,” Soliz added. “That’s why I think it’s important the public can understand what’s going on here. It’s not right.” 

Funkhauser said he has no plans to “flip a switch” and make contractual changes without the consent of its workforce. He also maintained, however, that several of the union’s current demands are unreasonable and won’t be allowed to be put in place while he remains CEO. 

“I will tell you this: We don’t require the union to agree to these. We have a legal process of moving forward and implementing some of these. This is what the public has wanted. This is what the board requires of me and I expect us to move forward on this,” Funhauser added. 

Both sides pointed toward lingering dischord over policies on overtime rates and paid time off. 

Here are a few of the issues: 

CATA proposed a 3% wage increase for 2021, 2022 and 2023 — billed as the largest increase offered since 2007. Executives also proposed a signing bonus of $1,500 and $750 for full- and part-time employees. The union is pushing for a 4% increase for 2019, 2020 and 2022, as well as bonuses of $2,500 and $1,250 for full- and part-time staff. The factfinder agreed with CATA’s proposed wage increases and a “compromise bonus” of $2,000 and $1,000 for full- and part-time staff. The union rejected the latest concept.  

Drivers are paid an overtime rate of 150% for anything longer than an eight-hour workday, as well as for the sixth day of their workweek. They make double time for any hours worked on the seventh day. After some drivers were found to have worked fewer than 40 hours a week yet still collect overtime for working six or seven days in a week, CATA proposed shifting this system to just pay overtime in excess of a 40-hour workweek. The union is opposed to changes in their long-standing overtime provisions.  

Bus drivers and mechanics have the discretion to utilize their paid time off  separately from leave granted under the Family and Medical Leave Act. CATA instead wants staff to use banked vacation days before taking leave under the FMLA, in part to “earn back the public’s trust which has been lost by excessive amounts of overtime.” The union wants to retain the existing language, arguing it would be unfair for staff to return from a medical emergency without vacation time. The factfinder agreed with the union.  

Drivers and mechanics earn attendance bonuses — up to $500 — if they don’t miss more than two scheduled shifts during any given month or for displaying perfect attendance over the year. CATA wants to exclude employees who miss two regularly shifts in one month from that bonus and limit the policy to only include absences that have been previously approved by management. The union pushed back against the advanced notice requirement and also proposed that employee sick time be allowed to be used in hourly increments. The factfinder sided entirely with CATA on this issue. 

Currently, drivers are assigned to a particular bus and remain on that same bus throughout the day. CATA wants to remove that requirement to ease “operational challenges'' and reduce wait times for drivers waiting for their same bus to return — which can extend a 30-minute lunch break into an unproductive, hour-long wait. The union contends switching buses can create “safety concerns'' because different buses steer and brake differently, forcing drivers to re-familiarize themselves with a new bus. The factfinder found no evidence of safety concerns, again entirely siding with CATA. 

Vacation days are accrued by drivers based on a percentage of wages, including overtime and vacation pay during any given year. CATA wants to shift policies so that vacation time is accrued only on a standard 40-hour work week. The factfinder found there was no basis for this change, siding with the union on leaving the policy intact.  

CATA also wants to eliminate retiree benefits altogether for employees hired after Dec. 1, 2019. The union was OK with this, just as long as the transit company contributes to a healthcare savings plan for staff. CATA rejected this concept amid a desire to edge down unfunded pension and benefit obligations, which are more than $40 million and climbing. The factfinder suggested changing the retroactive date to the date of the new contract — a proposal that both CATA and the union have rejected in their subsequent responses. 

The union proposed doubling dental and orthodontia coverage to $2,000 and $2,500, respectively, and removing the dependent age restriction of 19. CATA opposed the move on the basis that it would only lead to increased costs. The factfinder sided with CATA. 

CATA also wants to add a “zipper clause” to the contract, which Funkhouser said would essentially wipe the slate clean between CATA and the union on all other past agreements, except for those clearly outlined in the next collective bargaining agreement. Both the union and the factfinder found this language to be unnecessary. 

Comments

1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Busman

Cata has received 34 million in the last year in stimulus money to help workers. Because of reduced service due to covid they saved 600 thousand in 2020. The top 9 administration employees account for 5 percent of total labor cost.

Friday, February 26

Connect with us