Golden Gate Bridge Transit District approves mass layoffs in response to COVID-19 budget disaster

Emotional meeting still leaves 150 employees out of work come January

Nearly 150 employees that help run ferries and buses between the North Bay and San Francisco will soon be out of work, despite desperate pleas from unions and their members to preserve their jobs.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transit District Board of Directors voted Friday to eliminate a total of 205 positions — 146 of which are staffed by full-time employees and 59 of which are vacant — in order to keep the agency afloat as the coronavirus pandemic persists with no end in sight.

Layoffs are effective Jan. 4, about one month later than the originally proposed date, throwing a small concession to labor members who implored the board to wait until after the new year to cut the positions and buying a little more time to see if federal relief arrives.

The District oversees the Golden Gate Bridge and runs the buses and ferries that service routes between the North Bay and San Francisco.

Pre-pandemic, it was shuttling a diverse mix of downtown commuters, outdoor recreationists and hourly workers daily. But much of that traffic, save for the essential workers, has dried up.

Bus ridership has dropped by 75 percent and ferry ridership has fallen by 96 percent since March.

Perhaps most devastating to the District’s financial picture is that bridge traffic continues to hover at 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Tolls provide the largest single source of revenue to fund operation and maintenance of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the transit services.

The District has already cut all weekend transit service and reduced weekday trips by 75 percent in an attempt to create savings, but it still faces a projected $48 million budget deficit, after the use of CARES Act funds.

General Manager Denis Mulligan has repeatedly said labor is the biggest cost incurred by the agency.

“Every day, we send some bus drivers home without driving (while paying them for a full eight-hour day) and we have ferry deckhands painting curbs and bollards in the parking lot to keep staff actively working,” the staff report says.

Operators, though, say the low demand narrative runs counter to what they observe daily: passengers being left behind because infrequent buses are too crowded, skeletal ferry schedules that discourage riders and a dearth of marketing compared to peer agencies.

With $52 million in funding from the CARES Act set to run out at the end of November and no new federal stimulus yet in the works, Mulligan described the agency as on the brink of a “financial cliff.”

“Even if the District were to divert some portion of grant funds or reserves to pay employees on administrative leave, it would likely arrive at these same difficult crossroads in only a matter of weeks,” the staff report said.

Friday, the board was given three proposals to consider, all of which were projected to achieve roughly the same savings of approximately $15.6 million, and none of which would balance the $48 million shortfall.

One simply might stop the bleeding.

The first proposal, which the board ultimately gave the greenlight with a modification to the timeline, authorized the elimination of 205 positions. Almost all of the soon-to-be cut jobs are bus operators, along with a smattering of others such as ferry deckhands, back office positions, mechanics, engineers, route-checkers and more.

Dozens of labor union representatives and their members called Friday’s meeting with desperate pleas to the board to vote against the layoffs of frontline workers that have continued to show up for work in spite of the on-the-job risks.

“I know that this is a difficult time for everybody,” said Eric Turner, who works on the ferries. “I just wish the board would take into consideration that we are hardworking individuals and families and protect our health and welfare with no layoffs.”

They expressed great frustration that the board would consider leaving workers and their families without a job or health care just before the holidays and at comments from Mulligan that they believed presented them as listless and unproductive while on the job.

“Give me a break. Operators are the bloodline that give life to these cities by providing transportation,” said Transport Workers Union Local 250 President Roger Marenco.

While workers will be secure in their employment through the holidays, they ultimately lost their fight to compel their board to consider other options by a resounding vote of 11-5.

Mulligan was also given authority by the board to begin recalling the positions should demand for ridership return swiftly.

In voting for the layoffs, the board nixed two toll increase proposals that would have lessened the blow to workers.

A toll surcharge of $2 on all southbound vehicles, anyone crossing the bridge into The City by car, would have made layoffs unnecessary for the time being, assuming board approval after a community outreach process and public hearing to alert people of the increase and collect feedback.

A lower toll increase on southbound vehicles of $1.25 wouldn’t have forced any workers out of a job, but was contingent upon the unions agreeing to a one-day-a-week unpaid furlough for all employees who would otherwise be laid off. If the parties couldn’t reach consensus, all 205 positions would be cut.

San Francisco board members, Supervisor Norman Yee and Michael Theriault, both voted against the Jan. 4 layoff, and said they would have supported the toll increases instead.

Either would have impacted roughly 250,000 weekly drivers by raising tolls somewhere between 14 and 26 percent for cars, depending on which of the two options was selected.

Mulligan added late in the meeting that toll increases might also jeopardize The District’s ability to pay for the $600 million project to seismically retrofit the bridge.

All three proposals required the District to spend the $25.7 million cumulative emergency and operating reserves plus additional reductions and revenue generation to balance the budget as well as assume a deficit next fiscal year.

The Board did have the option to move forward with none of the three options. It could have chosen to spend down the District’s roughly $220 million in capital reserves, trading in long-term maintenance and infrastructure projects to “to pay employees for whom there is no work,” the staff report said.

Labor unions and employees repeatedly asked for the board to prioritize their immediate needs over the abstract promise of capital efforts in the long term.

“We don’t think it’s the right time to dig into the workers’ pockets or the public’s pocket, for that matter,” Miguel Navarro of ATU Local 1574 said.

Employees in question were sent Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications on Sept. 11, per the legal mandate that workers receive 60 days notice before a mass layoff.

Most are bus and ferry staff because they come from the units where costs exceed expenses.

Toll revenue is divided between the bridge and transit, with half of monthly revenues going to the operating budgets for each.

To date, car traffic — and therefore toll-generated revenues — has recovered enough to fund baseline bridge operations. Bus and ferry service, however, runs at a $4.5 million operating deficit per month despite significantly reduced service and other cost-cutting measures.

Any workers laid off in the next 90 days will receive a severance package approved by the board Friday.

It includes forum months of District-paid medical benefits and a choice between four weeks of severance pay or a $600 per week stipend for 10 weeks.

The board also voted to approve a six-month furlough program equal to 10 percent reduction in pay for management staff and its own members, effective Nov. 16. A motion to increase the pay reduction equivalent to 20 percent for management and cut 90 percent of the board members’ stipend wasn’t approved.

Golden Gate Transit District is not the only Bay Area transit agency on the brink of financial disaster.

BART and Caltrain are expected to consider service reductions that could necessitate layoffs in the coming months.

Mulligan repeatedly emphasized Friday his belief that this situation is temporary, and that The District will be there ready to serve demand once the region bounces back.

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