The Golden Gate Bridge is largely funded by bridge tolls, which dropped dramatically after shelter-in-place orders began. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Golden Gate Bridge District sends 185 workers notices of possible layoffs

More than 200 positions could be eliminated if more federal relief does not arrive

As many as 185 workers who help run the buses and ferries between the North Bay and San Francisco might soon be out of a job without an injection of federal aid dollars.

Notices were issued to each of the at-risk employees and union representatives from the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District last Friday, alerting them of their potential layoff as soon as early November.

“I recognize that this is incredibly disconcerting to each of you individually and collectively, and this creates considerable uncertainty during already challenging times,” General Manager Denis Mulligan wrote in a letter to all district employees the week prior.

A total of 242 positions in the Ferry, Bus and District divisions could be eliminated, although 57 are currently vacant.

Tolls across the Golden Gate Bridge largely subsidize the bus and ferry system. Weekly toll revenues have been between $1.5 million and $3 million down compared to the same period last year, for a total decrease of around 35 percent.

“They’re pretty much how we pay for everything,” Mulligan told the Examiner.

Other revenue sources, including fare revenue from the bus and ferry routes themselves, have dropped precipitously. Ridership remains down by 80 percent and 97 percent for the bus and ferry routes, respectively, as most major downtown offices remain locked shut and commuters are staying home.

“If there’s no demand for our services, and we don’t have outside federal money to help cover the lost revenues, we just can’t afford to keep our staff fully on board,” Mulligan said.

Like other Bay Area transit agencies, the Bridge District has been fighting extreme budgetary pressure since almost day one of shelter-in-place.

The transit agency has enacted major service cuts, including the suspension of most weekend trips and consolidation of commuter routes, continued with planned toll increases and used the $51.6 million in federal aid it received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to keep all employees on the payroll.

But the CARES Act funding is slated to run out by the end of October. Together with depressed customer demand, it’s appearing there “will not be sufficient finances to keep present staffing levels,” Mulligan wrote to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway Transportation District board, which voted on whether to permit the issuance of notices on Sept. 11.

In a 10-5 vote, board members voted to approve the notices. They would also have to approve any proposal to ultimately eliminate positions.

Federal law requires companies to provide written notice at least 60 calendar days in advance of a temporary or permanent layoff of between 50 and 499 workers.

Mulligan emphasized the notice “is not a decision to necessarily lay off any employees,” nor does it mean every person who receives one will certainly lose her job.

The notices are intended to provide the agency with the “flexibility to effect a layoff at some future date if additional federal assistance is not forthcoming,” he said.

The general manager estimated $50 million would be needed to hold full staffing levels through the current fiscal year ending next June.

No employees responsible for the “operation, maintenance and enhancement of the Golden Gate Bridge” are currently at risk of layoffs. Limited toll revenues are focused on bridge operations and capital improvements such as the suicide barrier or seismic retrofit, according to Mulligan.

Existing reserve funds — which totaled about $25.4 million in March — are used to help fund these projects that are considered critical to the safety and integrity of the bridge, he added.

When explaining why reserves can’t be shifted towards employee salaries, Mulligan likened the iconic bridge to a 1967 Mustang.

“You don’t want to get rid of it because it’s priceless, but every year it gets a little bit harder to maintain,” he told the Examiner.

Though the Bridge District is the first Bay Area transit agency to issue such notices, they’re likely not the last to be faced with this choice without the support of federal funds.

BART and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have also used CARES Act funding to keep their workers employed, but officials from both agencies have expressed worry over the future task of balancing the budget once that money is fully spent by later this calendar year.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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