Following more bus route cancellations Thursday, Capital Area Transit acknowledged there's a labor dispute involving the bus drivers' union.
Both sides have agreed to hash out a temporary contract.
For the third time this week, CAT was forced to cancel bus service for passengers. CAT on Thursday closed four routes which included one nightly route.
However, these closures did not compare to a dozen service line stoppages on Monday and Tuesday.
CAT General Manager Bill Jones chalked up the 26-percent of bus drivers calling out Monday to sickness and a few vacations. John Keller, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1436, has said the majority or drivers were scheduled off.
On Thursday, Jones had a different tune and pulled no punches.
“The union president has been witnessed berating drivers for offering to work overtime,” Jones said, “so you take it from there.”
Jones said the disruption in service, if not directly planned, is related to contract negotiations and a union labor dispute because drivers suddenly have refused to work overtime.
Keller immediately denied and refuted Jones' claim that he intimidated union drivers away from overtime pay.
“Nobody's telling them not to work overtime if they don't want to,” he said. “If they feel the cause is worthy enough, that's their decision.”
Keller and union officers argue that CAT simply must hire more drivers. He said the company's 86 full-time and seven part-time drivers are unable to handle the service.
Keller pointed the finger at CAT and said the company abused the drivers' willingness to work overtime to cover extended service.
“Why would you run a company that can only function if there's large amount of overtime on the street?” Keller said. “That's kind of a dangerous way to run a company.”
Jones said the company has more than enough drivers to provide service to CAT's 2.7 million passengers a year. Regardless of the labor dispute, he said passengers are suffering and that cannot continue to happen.
CAT's Cumberland-Harrisburg Transit Authority Board had its monthly meeting Thursday afternoon. Chairmen Eric Bugaile said the board voted to begin contract negotiations with the union.
When both sides came to an impasse in December, Bugaile said the board agreed to enter into binding arbitration. He said the board has agreed once again to reach a temporary deal before a long-term deal could be discussed.
Bugaile said the company's issues are directly related to the union and drivers' stubbornness.
“We have plenty of bus drivers,” he said. “They just need to show up for work.”
Bugaile said he would not publicly discuss contract negotiations.
The primary issues boils down to compensation. Since the union contract expired July 1, CAT drivers have been working on a maximum base pay of $24.80 an hour, roughly $51,500 a year. New workers begin at 70 percent of that rate and work their way up.
The union proposed a two-percent wage increase, which would be $25.30 an hour or about a $1,000 more per driver a year. Jones said about 75 drivers are at max pay.
CAT drivers have the third-highest pay rate in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia's SEPTA drivers make a $54,000 a year and Pittsburgh's Port Authority drivers earn $52,000.
Jones said CAT drivers earn $5 an hour more when compared other midstate transit operators.
Keller said CAT's wages could soon be surpassed by bus drivers in the Luzerne County Transportation Authority. He said the union initially asked for a three-percent wage hike and feels two percent is a concession.
“To put this thing to rest, a two-percent [increase] is fair,” he said.
Keller said CAT should receive a hefty sum of funding from Governor Tom Corbett's recent Transportation Funding Law. He said coffers could become full and CAT would have enough money for wage increases.
Jones said the company has not yet received a figure from the state, and therefore could not comment.
Jones said the union's previous three-year deal gave drivers a 9.4 percent wage increase over the term. He said that equated to a 14 percent bump in benefits and other expenses.
He said drivers have one of the best overall employment packages in the state, which includes allowances for uniform purchases and cleaning costs.
“We didn't say that we wouldn't work with them on wages,” Jones said. “But, we want – it has to be fair.”