CLEARWATER — Four bus drivers were fired within the last week after the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority accused them of falsifying requests for time off.
One driver, the vice president of the Tampa Bay Area Transit Workers Union, also was accused of using "foul language" and threatening to kill a passenger while on the job.
The drivers, with 28 years of experience among them, were accused of misusing the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives unpaid time off with job protection to employees who have a serious illness, have a new child or must care for a sick family member.
A PSTA investigation declared the drivers' requests for leave, some of which were submitted just a few hours before their shift began, were falsified or misleading, termination letters show. PSTA interim director Denise Skinner wrote in an e-mail that "several more terminations related to the investigation" could follow.
Fired were April Murphy, 47; her husband, Tom Murphy, 55; Tim Rinker, 41; and Randy Schaffer, 40. The drivers said the firings were based on false accusations. They planned to file grievances.
The drivers said their medical leave was cleared by doctors, who sent the paperwork directly to the PSTA. Several suggested the firings were a way to prepare for budget cuts.
"You're taking good workers and cutting their jobs just like that," Rinker said. "It's just a witch hunt."
In 2008, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit officials said abuses of family medical leave played havoc with their budget, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported. Nearly half of HART's 364 bus drivers asked to take sporadic medical or family leave, costing the agency millions of dollars in overtime. Only 2 percent of PSTA employees had asked for family or medical leave.
April Murphy also was accused of threatening a passenger who pushed her while boarding the bus after an argument last week.
Murphy said the passenger grabbed her from behind, bruising her, while her Route 4 bus was stopped near St. Petersburg's Williams Park. She said she screamed in self-defense, "You touch me again and I'll kill you."
"I didn't plan it. … I was shaking," she said. "The rules (for conduct) deal with normal behavior. This wasn't normal behavior."
Murphy said her firing was punishment for her four years of work with the union, which represents about 400 PSTA drivers and mechanics. Her attorney, Bryant Boydstun, said, "We don't know yet what the PSTA's up to."
Murphy, under her maiden name, April Eastman, made headlines in 2008 when she found help for a woman suffering from dementia who wanted a ride to New York.
Bob Lasher, a PSTA spokesman, disputed Murphy's claims of retribution. "If we have a good driver and they're defending themselves, we're not going to fire them," he said. "If it's conduct unbecoming, we'll hold them to that."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.