Lancaster, Reading transit workers call for more pay, coronavirus protections

“We’re at a big risk, we’re dealing with the community. I’m not only concerned about the health of the riders, but I’m concerned about myself.”

  • Anthony Orozco/PA Post

(Lancaster) — Reading and Lancaster bus drivers this week demanded safer working conditions and higher pay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders and members of two Amalgamated Transit Union locals held a press conference and informational picket Wednesday evening outside the South-Central Transit Authority’s Lancaster headquarters.

Drivers like Luis Rosario, who lives and drives in Reading for Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority, said he wants the authority to support its drivers.

“We’re at a big risk, we’re dealing with the community,” Rosario said. “I’m not only concerned about the health of the riders, but I’m concerned about myself.”

Declining to comment, BARTA/SCTA Executive Director David W. Kilmer provided a memo shared with employees that lists the steps the authority has taken to protect workers and bus riders from the start of the pandemic.

The memo features a chronology of BARTA’s efforts and notes that deliveries of personal protective equipment were delayed as suppliers dealt with overwhelming demand.

» Sign up for The Context, our daily newsletter about governing and governments across Pennsylvania.

At Wednesday’s picket, John Habanec, president of ATU Local 1241 in Lancaster, provided his own chronology of events in which he claimed BARTA and SCTA did not act quickly to address the union’s concerns about protecting drivers. He also said busses are far too crowded to be safe for the public.

“We will not sit quietly and let them tell you what a great job they’ve done for us,” Habanec said.

Steve Newsham, president of ATU Local 1345 in Reading, also urged BARTA and SCTA to provide hazard pay to drivers. He pointed to a $10.5 million stimulus grant awarded to the Reading Area Transportation group last month and asked why some of it couldn’t be directed to drivers.

The union leaders claimed that drivers with Rabbittransit in York and Capital Area Transit in Harrisburg received increased “appreciation pay” during the pandemic. Officials with those transit authorities did not respond to requests on Thursday to confirm that claim.

Kilmer’s memo addressed the hazard pay issue by stating that active public sector labor agreements can’t be revised solely to raise wages.

“There must be a quid-pro-quo, meaning the Authority must receive some benefit in exchange for the increased wages,” the memo said.

Newsham said that drivers are owed for being on the front lines.

Russ Walker / PA Post

An SUV driven by an ATU member at a protest outside the SCTA headquarters in Lancaster, Pa., on May 20, 2020. Members of two ATU locals, noting the risk they take as frontline workers during the coronavirus outbreak, were asking management for hazard pay and more personal protective supplies.

“As far as I’m concerned, we did our half. We did our half of a quid-pro-quo,” Newsham said. “Now step up and be people, be normal people and take care of your employees. That’s what we’re asking for.”

Berk County Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, chair of BARTA and SCTA, said the board stands behind Kilmer’s memo as an accurate description of efforts taken to protect drivers.

“Understand that our staff has worked round the clock to secure the proper safety upgrades,” Barnhardt said in a written response Thursday. “No fares since the end of March, rear entrance and requiring all riders wear face protection.”

Barnhardt also said the authority has approved $500,000 in protective plexiglass for drivers and a touchless payment method.

Loss in fares makes it very hard to pay drivers more, according to Barnhardt.

“Our ridership is down close to 70 percent,” Barnhardt said. “The demands of ATU are extreme in regards to pay. Time-and-a-half for regular hours would elevate a driver with three years of service from $27 per hour to $40.50. This amount is not sustainable.”

In regards to the $10.5 million grant going toward driver wages, Barnhardt said that money is already going toward voluntarily laid off drivers.

Newsham said around five drivers were voluntarily laid off but that another 15 drivers of door-to-door service have been laid off due to lack of work. Those drivers are not receiving pay, according to Newsham.

The union leaders also said they are open to negotiating what that hazard pay ultimately looks like.

At the picket, Newsham called on the public to urge BARTA and Barnhardt to better protect and compensate drivers.

Newsham said that the union gave up their right to strike long ago and said public outcry is their most immediate and powerful tool.

“We will always continue service, we will not strike because we are essential,” Newsham said. “I can’t condone any service interruptions but if the drivers get the point, I have no control of that.”

“The only thing we have is the public,” he said. “I don’t know about [Lancaster], I honestly feel in Reading, we do have the public.”

» PA Post is an independent newsroom covering policy and government in Pennsylvania. For more, go to www.papost.org.

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
Regional & State News

Your daily coronavirus update: Governor eyes lifting of many more pandemic restrictions