Silicon Valley transit agency workers demand hazard pay
VTA bus driver Patricia Murray pauses at an intersection near the end of her route in downtown San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    VTA’s largest union is demanding back hazard pay for bus drivers, light rail operators and other essential transit workers who have worked throughout the pandemic.

    “If it wasn’t a dangerous situation… then you have to ask yourself, why was the majority of VTA management working from the comforts of their home?” asked John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, which represents 1,500 VTA employees including bus drivers, light rail operators, mechanics, dispatchers and cleaners. “We worked the entire time throughout the pandemic. We feel there should be some reward for keeping, basically, the entire county moving and working.”

    Courtney told San José Spotlight that due to the public-facing and in-person nature of their jobs, many frontline workers faced a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

    “During the height of the pandemic, we had about 160 of our members come up positive for COVID,” Courtney said. “We lost two of our members to COVID deaths.”

    VTA bus drivers and light rail operators have previously clashed with management over the enforcement of the agency’s mask policy. Frontline workers have also criticized the agency’s actions following the mass shooting in May.

    Many workers spoke in favor of back hazard pay at a recent VTA board meeting.

    Rachel Garcia-Feezel, a bus driver, said when the county shut down, other public services were curtailed, but transit continued to operate with few safeguards.

    “Transit continued to roll with no protection. It took VTA months to set up and provide any kind of protective measures, and I use that term ‘protective’ very lightly,” Garcia-Feezel said. “We drive giant petri dishes every day.”

    Armando Barbosa, another VTA bus driver and chair of ATU Local 265’s Latino caucus, said he caught COVID-19 in December and suffered from pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.

    “I am here in full support to join my fellow transit brothers and sisters that risked their lives every single day of the pandemic, not knowing when will be that time that they and I will contract COVID-19 on the job, and thus bring it home to their families and my family,” Barbosa said.

    The union has fought for hazard pay for VTA workers since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney of economic justice nonprofit Public Advocates.

    “Transit unions have been demanding and not getting any response to that demand,” Marcantonio told San José Spotlight.  “Day after day, the frontline workers… were out in harm’s way, facing grave risk and sacrifice, including the daily risk of taking COVID home to their families without any real concern being shown for their well-being.”

    VTA workers aren’t alone in their push for back hazard pay. AC Transit workers in the East Bay successfully pressured the agency to negotiate back hazard pay with their union, ATU Local 192, according to news reports. AC Transit employees also spoke in support of VTA workers’ hazard pay at the board meeting.

    “This fight for back hazard pay is actually engaging rank and file members of both ATU 265 and 192 in a very direct and personal way,” Marcantonio said. “The union is the members. You could send a lawyer in to file whatever, but that’s not the same as the power you have when all of your members are making a demand and speaking up for it.”

    While Courtney said the amount of back hazard pay could be negotiated, it’s unclear how the transit agency would pay for it.

    VTA refuses to say how much money it received from federal relief funds during the pandemic. According to documents from a Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting in July, the agency has received a combined $236 million from the federal CARES Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan.

    “VTA appreciates the dedication all essential workers have shown throughout this challenging past year and a half throughout the pandemic,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “All compensation issues of our represented employees must be formally addressed with the union.”

    San Jose Councilmember and VTA board member Raul Peralez said he supports back hazard pay for the transit agency’s workers.

    “There’s obviously more details to be ironed out, and how much are we talking, how would we fund something like that,” Peralez said. “I would not be surprised if we see a more formal conversation coming forward to the board next month.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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