ITHACA, N.Y.—Eight months after their labor contract expired, bus drivers, mechanics and fuelers have seen a tentative agreement reached by management at Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) and their union, United Auto Workers (UAW) 2300 Local.

While negotiations had dragged on months longer than originally scheduled, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool told TCAT’s Board of Directors on Jan. 26 that bargaining talks went well. 

“No conflicts. No raised voices. It really was very collaborative,” Vanderpool said. 

The two-year contract proposal will have to stand the test of a ratification vote on Monday and Tuesday. It comes amid challenging times for TCAT. Most of the employees that The Ithaca Voice spoke with think the tentative agreement will pass, however, they aren’t feeling so enthusiastic.

Desiree Johnson, a TCAT Driver who spoke to The Voice in October about the bus company’s challenging working conditions, said that the tentative agreement is “dividing for a lot of people. In my opinion, it’s causing some frustration.”

The agreement delivers a much sought-after pay raise for senior drivers and mechanics by introducing a tiered salary structure. Under the expired contract, a driver at TCAT earns an hourly wage of $23.67 and mechanics earn $26.75, whether they’ve been working at TCAT for two years or 20 years. By 2024, under the tentative agreement, drivers and mechanics who have 10 or more years at TCAT would earn hourly wages of $28.60 and $32.32, respectively.

Desiree Johnson works as bus driver at Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT). Amid staffing shortages, and challenges to hire and retain new drivers, she and other drivers say they are at their wit’s end. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

What Johnson and many others are dwelling on is if the proposal does enough for new hires.

Under the proposed pay system, drivers being trained at TCAT in 2023 would start out at $22.67 an hour for their first year under the agreement,then drivers who have worked at TCAT for one to two years would enter into the second tier, earning $24.44 an hour. Drivers who have been at TCAT for three to nine years will be in the third tier, earning $26.16. Drivers who have been there for 10 years or longer will earn $26.98 in the fourth and final tier.

Then, in 2024, pay will increase again. Trainees in the first tier will earn $23.25 an hour, second-tier drivers will earn $25.56 an hour, third-tier drivers will earn $27.59 an hour and fourth-tier drivers will earn $28.60 an hour.

Johnson said that, in her view, she feels drivers should be starting at about $28 an hour. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly pay for bus drivers nationally was $24.67 in 2021, and $34.10 in New York State, a figure that is largely determined by the pay to drivers in New York City. 

“It’s not enough incentive for those who are newer to stay,” Johnson said, adding, “A lot of newer drivers, they’re feeling like they’re not getting anything out of this contract, and they’re not happy about it.”

Discontent has been mounting within the ranks at TCAT as mechanic, fuelers and driver positions have proven difficult to fill amid a national labor shortage. Workers at TCAT have described a steady rotation of new recruits leaving soon after beginning in their roles. It’s a trend that began before the pandemic, but which the virus’ impact only exacerbated. From a high of 90 drivers in 2018, TCAT has seen its current staff of drivers whittled down to 52, excluding those on leave.

The frustration workers at TCAT have felt led them to overwhelmingly vote to authorize a strike in December. The strike authorization, which is a procedural requirement for workers to go on strike, sent another strong signal to TCAT management that something needed to be done to improve their working conditions. 

While workers say they feel the root cause of the recruitment challenge has been uncompetitive pay, the short-staffing also bears knock-on effects that can deter new recruits. TCAT has had to slash service and struggled to return to its pre-pandemic levels of ridership, but even with the service cuts, drivers are still spread thin. Drivers say that they are mandated to work extra shifts in order to keep all the bus routes running and that 12-hour days are normal, making for an exhausting experience. 

When there are unstaffed routes, mandates are doled out starting with the least-senior staff, making the early months and years of starting out as a bus driver an exhausting experience. Many drivers regularly work up to 14-hour day. 

Shift mandates are also given out at TCAT starting with the least senior drivers, making for a challenging start to joining the team. Johnson said that she felt that the starting pay for new drivers was not high enough to encourage them to stay, and that TCAT would continue to struggle to recruit and, because of this, retain drivers.

Levon Brewer, president of UAW Local 2300, told The Voice that “Everyone’s not in agreement with any contract. You’re always gonna have some people against it, no matter what you come up with, or what the contract looks like. What I can say is this is one of the better or if not the best tentative agreement […] that we’ve had for many years.”

One mechanic told The Voice that the raises have won them over, as well as the majority of their coworkers despite them not feeling like the raises were as competitive in the current market. 

Under the tentative new agreement, mechanics will start out at $25.88 hourly for their first year in 2023. After the first year, they would enter the second tier and earn $27.62 an hour. From their third through ninth years at TCAT, mechanics would be in the third tier of pay andearn $29.56 an hour. After 10 years at TCAT, they would earn and $30.50 an hour. 

In 2024, first-tier–starting mechanics would earn an hourly wage of $26.40, $29 an hour for the second tier, $31.18 an hour for the third tier, and $32.32 for the fourth. 

Except for a couple of new incoming hires, most of the mechanics at TCAT would fall into the third and fourth pay tiers. The mechanic The Voice spoke with said that because drivers are the majority of the bargaining unit, it will likekly be their votes that really decide if the agreement is ratified or not.

“There’s a lot of new hires, that it’s not as good of a deal for us as it is the [people] that have been here a while,” the anonymous mechanic said. “And of course, there’s a lot more new hires, and there are older people.”

The Voice spoke with TCAT drivers during the short window of time they have to pick up and drop off passengers at bus stops to hear how they felt about the contract proposal. 

One said, “I think it’s going to pass,” with an indifferent shrug before declining to add anything else and driving away.

Several drivers expressed some relief that it seemed like contract negotiations were coming to a close, with one driver saying, “It’s not perfect,” but adding that “I’m surprised we’re getting what we’re getting.”

One longtime driver expressed worry about the company being able to recruit new drivers but, thinking of their prospective raise, said with a bit of cheer, “It’s looking good for me!”

Yet another driver, who acknowledged that they weren’t going to see a meaningful raise from the tentative agreement, said “The people that have been here a long time deserve the money, but everyone deserves more money. Especially with everything we deal with.” 

A bit earlier, someone had decided to hurl snowballs at the bus they were driving.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn