Half of GRTC bus drivers strike for hazard pay in the pandemic: CEO alleges contract violation while the Union disagrees.

Half of all GRTC bus system employees called their managers in the early hours of Monday morning and told them "I'm not coming in today."

They weren't sick. But they're worried they could be.

Approximately half of the Greater Richmond Transit Company's roughly 100 drivers participated on Monday in the strike for hazard pay in light of the pandemic, the Times-Dispatch and the Associated Press report. The strike, organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local Chapter 1120, asks the City to follow in many corporate chains' footsteps and pay drivers time and a half for their exposure to the coronavirus.

On behalf of drivers, the Amalgamated Transit Union has been in correspondence with the GRTC regarding hazard pay for essential workers' exposure to COVID-19, as over 100 public transport workers nationwide, the Times and the Guardian report, have died from the virus. Many are also looking for protections such as paid sick leave, hazard pay, and furlough protections as they now find themselves "essential." The risk to essential workers' health has spurred dozens of similar movements nationwide including Instacart, Amazon, Whole Foods, and other median-wage workers whose jobs are deemed essential.

Julie Timm, CEO of Richmond's GRTC, says she is doing the best she can, expressing concern about limitations in the city budget. Last week, Timm approved an initiative for $300-500 "bonuses" for some workers. The CEO says she will also propose retroactive bonuses if enough money is there when the new annual budget is approved July 1.

“I cannot promise the funds will be there, but it is very much on my mind and in my heart to fight for this budget item,” she said in a statement.

After Monday's strike saw hour-long delays to bus schedules and severe strain on the system without drivers, Tiimm released a statement expressing displeasure with the action. She says workers who fail to appear for their next scheduled shift on Tuesday could be terminated for breach of contract. Virginia is a right-to-work state, meaning employees are not required to join unions and can be let go by employers at-will.

"I can only express severe disappointment that some of our staff have decided to pursue this course of action," Timm said in a letter to AMTU 1120 president on Monday evening. "There is no reasonable excuse for the operators to not report to work."

Local union chapter president Maurice Carter denied any violation of contract and declined to comment further, the Times-Dispatch reports.

The ATU initially proposed drivers and other personnel receive 1 1/2 times their usual hourly rate for the duration of the pandemic. Starting pay for GRTC bus drivers is currently $15.50 an hour, with the maximum potential pay increase for a driver at $23.84 after four years.

Jointly owned by Richmond City County and Chesterfield County, the GRTC serves as the city's main public transportation system and its most visible public works project. As a critical transportation infrastructure, the city bus system serves more than 5.47 million passengers a year. Among the Richmond population, nearly half of frequent GRTC commuters do not have a driver's license, and among passengers with an income under $10,000, that percentage rises to 68 percent, the system said in a 2019 survey report. This survey also found that most transit riders take the bus five or more days a week, with 64 percent of commuters identifying as African-American.

Many public sector and private sector industries have instituted hazard pay for employees whose jobs require an exaggerated risk of exposure to the coronavirus. These include grocers, fast-food workers, and Amazon employees.

What is hazard pay, who gets it, and why do people want it now?

Everyone and no one. Many workers in the construction industry, the military, and industrial sectors receive hazard pay from employers when their jobs aren't usually dangerous, but situations suddenly put them at risk (i.e., increased lead exposure). While there are laws regulating workplace restrictions regarding hazardous workplace scenarios and individual risk, we've kind of, well, never dealt with something quite like this before.

What do bus drivers want?

According to the ATU and the Times-Dispatch and a letter released by the ATU, workers in coordination with the union are asking the GRTC to provide:

  • Personal protective safety equipment for bus drivers and operators (masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, etc.)
  • Paid and protected leave for workers experiencing symptoms of COVID-19
  • Free, on-site testing for public-facing employees exhibiting symptoms
  • Furlough protections
  • Policies that passengers enter through rear doors [and suspension of fares to promote social distancing]
  • "Strategic service coordination to avoid overcrowding on buses"
  • Limiting bus capacity to no more than 10 passengers ["paratransit to only one"]
  • Requiring riders to wear masks for safety

Will the bus schedule run tomorrow?

Assume that it will. If the bus is delayed and you need to get to work, call your boss and let them know (it's the apocalypse, they should understand), and be patient as we work through these complicated economic and societal issues of reallocating budgets, protecting citizen safety, and overall navigating the uncharted territory of a postmodern pandemic which all feels a bit frustratingly abstract when you've got bills to pay and budgets to meet. You're not alone. And if you do run into your bus driver, tell them thank you.

Thousands of residents rely on the bus system. Are you a transportation employee, gig worker, grocer, police officer, medical assistant, or other essential worker in this crisis? What's your take? Leave a comment and let us know!