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Union blasts SFMTA over Muni operator wages

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Muni operators say their current salary structure is preventing them from making ends meet in the increasingly expensive San Francisco Bay Area. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Muni operators’ union leader says the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency needs to be “on blast” for its treatment of drivers.

Eric D. Williams, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, spoke with the San Francisco Examiner in response to a story in Monday’s paper, which detailed how Muni workers hired in the last year had their pay cut nearly in half under a 2014 contract. But now, a year later, those drivers are sounding a cry, saying they can’t make ends meet on that pay.

“We’ve got to put the agency on blast for what we’re doing to our members,” Williams said.

The SFMTA previously told the Examiner that Muni operators are among the highest paid in the nation and that they enjoy generous benefits.

While most Muni operators make anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000 a year, according to public records, 818 Muni operators who were hired after July 1, 2014, make 63 percent of that pay under a relatively new contract quirk.

Those operators are paid as low as $37,000 a year, before union dues and benefits.

An operator’s salary is then increased in “steps” over five years. After five years, operators earn full pay. That step payment system is the source of contention for Muni drivers, some of whom say they can’t afford basic goods for themselves or their families.

By contrast, AC Transit has a step in its salary for operators between three and four years. Before July 2014, SFMTA operators’ step salary period was 18 months.

Williams said the reduced pay may lead to drivers quitting Muni. And less drivers, he said, mean late buses.

According to the SFMTA, 60 of the 818 new operators hired since July 1, 2014, have quit the agency or did not show up for initial training. An unreliable workforce also strains other operators, who must pick up the slack, Williams said.

“Overtime is still through the roof,” Williams said, “The only way overtime goes through the roof is when you don’t have enough employees.”

Operators work overtime in difficult “split shifts,” in which the SFMTA stretches eight-hour operator shifts to 10 hours or more through extended unpaid breaks, operators told the Examiner. Many drivers said they work multiple jobs and otherwise could not afford to live in the Bay Area on an SFMTA salary, which is different than the compensation they expected.

“A lot of us left good paying jobs for a lie. I had a job making over $25 an hour,” said one operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Williams and operators allege the SFMTA does not properly warn operators of the new five-year payment system.

Responding to the criticism, SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose wrote via email, “… most employees within the city are on a similar pay/step scale. This information is always posted within the contract and on the website for all potential candidates who are considering the application process.”

Pay information is also communicated in the training offer letter, Rose said, and at an employee orientation prior to working for Muni.

Some operators rest the responsibility of that contract with Williams, who negotiated it.
At a TWU Local 250-A union meeting in December, operators openly questioned Williams’ ability to secure a successful contract for new operators. Former union president Irwin Lum agreed with that criticism.

During 2014 negotiations, Lum said, “Management did not expect to get the five-year progression. They were amazed Eric [Williams] agreed to it.”

Williams said he successfully negotiated a wage increase for members and that the five-year progression was a trade-off that could change in the future.

“To me, the union was out-maneuvered in the negotiations,” Lum said.

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