N.Y. MTA Labor Talks Drag as Union Fights Part-Time Bus Drivers

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has long been an anomaly in the public transit world, with almost all of its 66,000 employees working full time. If the agency follows the lead of many American employers, that would change.

The biggest U.S. transit agency’s proposal to use part-time bus drivers to cut costs is one of the most contentious points in contract talks now in their second year with its largest bargaining unit. The plan is part of a package of measures, including three years of no wage increases, that union leaders hope to derail when they send hundreds of workers to swarm the offices of lawmakers in Albany next month.

Leaders of Transport Workers Union Local 100 say allowing an army of part-time drivers would shrink paychecks, threaten public safety and harm the economic stability of families.

“There’s no such thing as a part-time family or a part-time mortgage,” said Jim Gannon, a TWU spokesman. “If some schmuck wants to work part-time, go get a job at Best Buy.”

Contracts calling for only full-time drivers were common around the U.S. until the late 1970s, when part-time positions were negotiated in Seattle, said Greg Dash, who consults transit agencies on labor issues as president of John A. Dash & Associates in Havertown, Pennsylvania. About 85 percent of public agencies now use part-time drivers to save money, he said, and private bus operators often do the same.

Rush Hours

Mass transit, especially in metropolitan areas, requires the most vehicles and workers during morning and evening rush hours to meet demand. Work rules that the MTA calls “outdated” require eight-hour shifts. During midday lulls, workers are often paid even when they’re not driving.

Shifts lasting more than eight hours can’t be broken up between multiple employees, forcing the MTA to pay one worker overtime to do the whole thing.

One bus driver with a base pay of $55,994 in 2009 more than doubled his take-home with $70,473 in overtime pay, according to a 2010 audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

In 2010, overtime cost the MTA $560 million for the extra wages, or 13 percent of payroll, the equivalent of employing an extra 7,000 full-time workers, according to the authority. This year, it budgeted $506 million. Toll and fare increases that take effect in March are expected to bring in only $450 million a year.

Teresa Garcia, a driver for 14 years based at the Kingsbridge depot in Manhattan, said she typically works 42 to 45 hours week. Many of her colleagues log up to 60 hours a week -- there’s no limit -- and have come to rely on the extra income, she said. Overtime, at one-and-a-half times the normal rate, is paid for anything more than eight hours in a day.

‘Affecting Everything’

“When you take that away from us and give that extra overtime to part-time workers, you’re affecting everything --our lifestyles, our pensions, our children’s futures,” said Garcia, 39. “It’s just something that we hope doesn’t happen.”

J.P. Patafio, a union vice-president who’s worked 17 years for the MTA, says safety is his biggest concern.

“I don’t care what people say -- if you’re going to work a part-time job in New York City, you’re going to work two or three of them” to make ends meet, he said. There’s no guarantee that part-timers will abide by agency policy requiring approval of outside employment and sufficient rest between shifts, he said.

The part-time proposal would apply only to bus drivers in the TWU. The union represents 8,371 of 11,611 such operators. No subway or train workers would be affected.

Higher Profits

Union leaders compare the MTA to companies that have increasingly replaced full-time workers with part-timers as a way to reduce spending on pay and benefits, and bolster profit. Yet the two aren’t analogous, said Dash, the consultant.

“What you’re doing is eliminating overtime spending,” he said. “It’s not typically taking a full-time, eight-hour job, cutting it in half and making two part-time jobs out of it.”

No full-time employee would be forced to work part-time, said an MTA official familiar with the negotiations, who asked not to be identified because talks are still going on. It might be appealing to workers looking to scale back instead of retiring, or to those who have school or family obligations, the official said.

Part-time workers would have health-care coverage for themselves only, not family members, and would remain eligible for pensions, which are based on earnings, the MTA official said.

Deficit Projection

The MTA pegged the cost savings at $13 million a year, according to a union official familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified because talks are continuing. The MTA declined to comment on the figure. The agency projects $333 million in deficits from next year through 2016, according to budget documents.

Rarely mentioned in the debate over part-time labor is that the MTA already employs bus drivers less than full time, though they represent a sliver of the total workforce.

Thirty-five of 158 bus drivers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 work part-time under a 2010 contract that pays them $1 an hour less than full-timers, according to the MTA.

The Houston unit of the Transport Workers Union lost a similar fight against part-time drivers, said Wayne Jackson, a vice president of Local 260. The result created divisions between workers who are paid different wages to do the same job, he said.

“We’ve been trying to get rid of it ever since,” Jackson said. “Everyone’s trying to hold on to what they have.”

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