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Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Capital Metro drivers and mechanics to vote this week on pay boost

Monday, November 15, 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill being signed into law by President Biden has thrown a lifeline to Austin-area transit operator Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has struggled for months to recruit enough bus operators to maintain service.

This week, the 1,220 workers who operate Capital Metro’s bus service and maintain its fleet of vehicles will vote on a labor agreement that would increase their pay. The deal would raise starting wages for drivers from $17.50/hour to $22/hour. Mechanics would see their starting pay increase from $29/hour to $31/hour.

The pay hike is substantially made possible by an infusion of cash from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included “the largest investment in public transit in U.S. history,” according to the White House.

Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez. Dottie Watkins began her career at Capital Metro as a bus operator and rose through the ranks to become the agency’s chief operating officer.

“In large part, that is how we are going to afford this over the long term,” Capital Metro Chief Operating Officer Dottie Watkins said. A financial analysis of exactly how much Capital Metro will receive through the legislation is expected this week.

“I’m encouraging my members to vote yes,” Brent Payne, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, said. The union represents employees who work for MV Transportation, a Dallas-based company hired by Capital Metro to operate and maintain buses under a $1.4 billion multiyear contract.

Payne said all MV employees working in the Capital Metro system would get a raise, including radio controllers, dispatchers, trainers and supervisors. Drivers and mechanics could also earn monthly bonuses of $200 for meeting performance goals, including perfect attendance, he said.

Capital Metro has been scrambling since the summer to fill about 100 driver positions, offering hiring bonuses of up to $3,500. The agency also needs five to 10 more mechanics.

Capital Metro has seen early retirements and higher-than-normal turnover during the pandemic as front-line workers face risks from the virus and exhaustion from enforcing mask rules. Face coverings are still required on public transit systems under Federal Transit Administration regulations.

Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez. UT graduate student Ryan Natividad rides a Capital Metro bus from his apartment in Hyde Park to campus. Masks are still required on public transit systems under federal regulations.

Failure to enforce mask rules could cost an agency up to 25 percent of its federal funding, which for Capital Metro will amount to more than $40 million this fiscal year, according to the agency’s forecasts.

The worker shortage forced the agency to reduce frequency on 17 routes and suspend E-Bus service – a route that primarily caters to UT students who want to go downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

The tentative labor agreement was negotiated between the ATU and MV Transportation. Capital Metro provided MV guidance on how much in additional wages the transit agency could afford.

“We gave them a framework that we knew would fit within our long-range financial plan,” Watkins said.

Capital Metro is also benefiting from higher sales tax collections. Almost half of the agency’s budget comes from a 1 percent tax on goods and services sold in its service area. Last month, that amounted to $31 million, an increase of 32 percent over October 2020, according to the Texas comptroller.

“We knew we needed to increase the rates in order to be able to recruit the quantity of people we need,” Watkins said.

Union members will vote on the tentative labor agreement Thursday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If approved, the new pay rates would take effect Jan. 1.

Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez. A MetroRapid bus drives next to a contraflow lane for Capital Metro buses on the Guadalupe Street corridor. An expansion of the high-frequency transit service will require Capital Metro to hire even more employees in the coming years.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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