Union Bristles at Cap Metro Shuffle
Are the wheels coming off the bus?
Jay Wyatt is mad at Capital Metro again.
Three months after leading Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 drivers and mechanics on a brief strike, he now worries that shifts among Cap Metro labor subcontractors are leaving some drivers overworked and underpaid and possibly causing service disruptions. Cap Metro and the subcontractors dispute Wyatt's allegations and say they're running routes efficiently and following federal guidelines on overtime.
In November 2008, Cap Metro announced that four routes operated by StarTran Inc. would be switched to two other subcontractors, Veolia Transportation and First Transit. Cap Metro said the shifts would help on several cost-cutting fronts, but Wyatt charged that one reason was foremost: Veolia and First Transit workers get paid less due to older contracts. (Due to conflicting state and federal labor laws, Cap Metro employs none of its drivers or maintenance workers directly.)
Now, Wyatt alleges Veolia is insufficiently staffed to handle its increased workload, that First Transit's employees are forced to do work for which they're not trained, and that at the same time, StarTran is costing Cap Metro money by having too many idle workers.
"When you look at Veolia, they right now have 108 employees," Wyatt said. "In order for them to do all the work that Capital Metro is giving to them, it would take around 130. So what's happening is, Veolia is threatening their employees with having to work on their days off. Some of these people are working double shifts. It makes the public unsafe, because you have fatigue behind the wheel." And, he charges, some routes end up driverless, inconveniencing Austin commuters.
Wyatt produced a Jan. 7 Veolia memo encouraging drivers to work overtime but warning, "If we do not fill all open extra work we can require our Operators to work on your days off." Wyatt also claims Veolia employees told him that Cap Metro also is going to switch the 320 route over to First Transit because of Veolia's insufficient manpower.
Capital Metro Chief of Staff Andrea Lofye disputed Wyatt's claims. While she admits lower labor costs did factor into the route moves, "Capital Metro, this past summer when fuel prices peaked, we took a look at ways to conserve fuel and put in place a number of measures to limit idling whenever possible. ... A lot of our routes have a lot of deadhead time – the time it takes for a bus to drive from the garage up to where the route starts and then [to drive back to the garage] at the end." She says the agency realized deadhead could be reduced by switching two North Austin routes to First Transit, which operates out of Cap Metro's garage near Highway 183 and Burnet Road, and three Central Austin routes to Veolia, based at 51st and Manor Road. StarTran operates from Fifth and Pleasant Valley. (Lofye also said Cap Metro has no plans to change route 320.)
The cost-cutting has increased in significance, she said, as Austin's sales-tax revenue – a major source of Cap Metro funding – has decreased due to the recession. Lofye's emphasis on the deadhead reasoning, however, is undercut by a Nov. 7, 2008, letter from Cap Metro President Fred Gilliam sent to StarTran that directly tied the switch to the then-ongoing strike against StarTran: "[W]ith two consecutive months of declining sales tax revenue ... Capital Metro ... has a strong interest in utilizing our contractors who operate at lower costs per hour. As a result of the instability of StarTran's work force, Capital Metro must take steps to ensure that our services will be provided in a consistent and reliable manner for our community."
Regarding staffing and overtime, Lofye says: "Veolia and First Transit have repeatedly asked for additional work. ... Their employees want the overtime work." Moreover, StarTran General Manager Terry Garcia Crews says attrition has dropped her surplus staffers down to just one.
Wyatt acknowledges drivers want overtime but argues, "You got to look at the big picture: Are these people safe out there operating these buses 10 days or 14 days and not really getting adequate rest?" The subcontractors insist that they are following federal guidelines on overtime.
As for unfilled routes, Lofye says Wyatt is flat wrong. The agency has received "no major complaints about any routes," she says.
Wyatt also asserted that First Transit workers, who mostly run the University of Texas shuttles, "never did have a desire to do revenue service. They don't get paid the type of money per hour that StarTran employees do. ... They have no pension plan, they have no insurance, but you want to put another responsibility on them," such as collecting fares and dealing with passengers who refuse to pay. (The shuttle does not collect fares.) "I talked to several UT shuttle drivers last night. ... Not one was happy about having to do all this extra work." (First Transit workers are eligible for insurance, Wyatt says, but many do not work enough hours to qualify.)
Both Lofye and UT's First Transit General Manager Scott Lansing seemed mystified by this argument. "The only difference is collecting fares," Lansing said. "Our drivers are trained. It's the same equipment and streets." Lofye says Veolia and First Transit can operate cheaper than StarTran, which employs most of Capital Metro's drivers, because they are "national companies with lower overhead."
"It's easy to say StarTran costs more than these other companies," counters Wyatt. "The companies, you know what they need when they come in here? Nothing but a pen and a piece of paper. Everything is being provided to them. A lot of cost that's associated with us is added from administration and other stuff."