ITHACA, N.Y.—Workers at Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) have voted to ratify a new contract between the transit company and their union approximately eight months after their last one expired.

Members of the bargaining unit at TCAT, which is represented by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300, voted on Monday and Tuesday, many with mixed feelings about whether the contract would make the improvements to the workplace they felt were needed to recruit new drivers into the ranks.

Results are in, with the new contract being ratified with 45 “yes” votes to 25 “no” votes. 

The big change that the contract brings is the introduction of raises. Previously, drivers and mechanics at TCAT received hourly wages that plateaued once they moved past their probationary employment period. Whether they worked at TCAT for two or 20 years, drivers earned $23.67 an hour and mechanics earned $26.75 an hour.

TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool is projecting hope from the vote results. “Believe me, I listen to a lot of negative things,” Vanderpool said. “I have an open door policy. Drivers know they can come to me and complain. We’re working hard to try to move in the right direction and make all the adjustments necessary that will allow for work life balance and better wages, and I think this is a good start to that.”

Patrick Naughton, a driver at TCAT who worked on the contract negotiation team for the union, said that TCAT has historically had a hard time retaining drivers. Naughton said that he felt the lack of a payscale has long been a cause of recruitment challenges. In 2018, TCAT had 90 drivers—currently, it only has 52 full-time drivers on the road.

“We needed to entice people to stay within the company and so longevity pay is something that we kind of came to an understanding that maybe we can implement to see if we can keep some sort of retention,” Naughton said. 

The contract introduces tiered raises for both driver and mechanic positions that come at the first, second, third and tenth year working for the company. The raises come into effect in 2023, and jump up again by 2024. Drivers will start at $22.67 an hour, in 2024 will make $27.59 an hour by their third year, and $28.60 an hour if they stay with the company for 10 years.

Mechanics will start at $25.88 an hour, and by 2024 will earn $31.18 by the third year, then $32.32 an hour if they stay for 10 years.

The margin the contract passed by is a comfortable one, but it wasn’t an overwhelming approval. 

In a response to a request for comment from The Ithaca Voice, UAW Local 2300 President Levon Brewer said that “My UAW bargaining unit members have engaged in nearly eight months of bargaining and have jointly reached an agreement with TCAT. Now moving forward, both sides can build on this agreement for the foreseeable future.”

Desiree Johnson, a driver at TCAT that The Voice has previously spoken with, said “I don’t know how this is going to be for new recruitment. […] So unless they do some extensive recruitment, on the management side, we’re not going to see a flood of people coming in.”

The sentiment that the new contract doesn’t do enough for new drivers was echoed by Ralph Terino, a union steward and the most senior bus driver at TCAT. After running a route on Green Street in the City of Ithaca, Terino said he voted no on the contract. “I used to work for another bus company, and people got up to the top pay in about four years.” 

Other than the rate at which drivers can climb to top pay, Terino said that “it’s not the worst contract in the world.”

Vanderpool told The Voice that he is optimistic about recruitment. TCAT’s human resources department staff, he said, was hollowed out during the pandemic, but now key positions are going to be filled and the bus company is going to start holding more frequent training sessions with larger class sizes to get drivers behind the wheel. 

Another driver at TCAT, Aaron Wallace, expressed strong discontent over the new contract, saying “I am exponentially unhappy with it.”

Wallace shared that in his situation, he isn’t eligible for a significant raise at the moment despite having spent seven years working with the company. The reason being, he said, a gap in his employment at TCAT. Wallace said that he left his driving position for a job in management at the company, then left that position during the pandemic only to return to a driving position later on.

“It’s the best job I ever had,” Wallace said, expressing that he wished he was eligible for a more “equitable compensation raise.”

The Voice spoke with Richard Johnson, another driver at TCAT who enthusiastically voted in favor on the new contract.

“I retired from the post office after 30 years, and [this is] probably the best contract I’ve ever seen in my lifetime for any job.” Johnson said. “And for TCAT it was way better than what I was expecting.”

Johnson added that “I think there’s other causes for not getting drivers in the door other than pay.”

When asked about the long and grueling 12-hour work days that drivers often must, Vanderpool said that he is currently working on moving routes scheduling off an automated system with the intention of bringing drivers into the process.

“It’s going to be a coordinated effort to really take a hard look at the scheduling and the makeup of what the drivers work schedule is going to be on a daily basis,” Vanderpool said. “I think the drivers will also understand how difficult it is to put schedules together, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from the drivers as well in trying to create these schedules.”

Vanderpool, who started out his career as bus driver, said that the current plan is to implement the new contract changes for the fall 2023 schedule. “The drivers know I’ve been in their place and had to deal with what they had to deal with when I was a full-time driver for nine to 10 years.”

Johnson said she actually appreciates the positivity and hope that TCAT management is putting out. 

“From a management perspective, I think they’re very hopeful and I think that’s a good thing,” Johnson said. “But the requirements for the drivers to keep routes running, that stressor will still be there. That hasn’t changed and that’s going to continue to be a struggle for the drivers. And a lot of people are just gonna stick it out, and the frustrations will be felt.”

“It’s gonna take some time. It’s not gonna happen overnight. And hopefully it will in fact, get better,” Johnson continued.

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