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Pinellas bus drivers, PSTA spar over pay raises: ‘They flat-out lied’

The Pinellas drivers and mechanics’ union feels shortchanged by recent pay hikes. Some administrators are pushing back.
Union representative April Murphy leads a protest along Ulmerton Road on Feb. 9 with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority drivers and employees upset over the disparity between their pay and that of administrative, non-union employees.
Union representative April Murphy leads a protest along Ulmerton Road on Feb. 9 with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority drivers and employees upset over the disparity between their pay and that of administrative, non-union employees. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 23|Updated Feb. 23

With protest signs in tow, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus drivers, mechanics and union representatives on Wednesday confronted the agency’s directors over a pay raise dispute that’s been simmering for weeks.

At issue: A series of salary hikes that union members say paid administrative employees more than veteran drivers.

Drivers have staged protests and petitioned to reopen contract negotiations over what Kevin Sablan, leader of the Pinellas chapter of the Service Employees International Union, called a “fraudulent wage scam” and “the very definition of bad-faith negotiations” during a PSTA board meeting Wednesday.

“They didn’t necessarily do anything illegal,” Sablan said, “but it was definitely unethical.”

PSTA officials have disputed the union’s characterization of the raises, arguing the latest contract added benefits and boosted pay for both newer and veteran drivers.

“We just approved the contract just a few months ago,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller. “There was 70-some percent approval by the union. There were many negotiations. The arguments about a bad-faith negotiation I am very upset about, because in no way was that a bad-faith negotiation.”

PSTA last week denied the union’s class-action grievance over the raise issue, sending the case toward arbitration.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, several PSTA directors supported the idea of renegotiation.

“I think you’ve been wronged on this,” Dave Albritton told union members attending the meeting.

Related: After HART got millions in COVID-19 funding, board gives CEO $37,500 raise

The dispute goes back to bargaining sessions last summer. Union leaders said PSTA wanted to cap raises for veteran union members at 3 percent, about the same as all employees got the previous two years. The union bargained up to 3.25 percent for veteran drivers — smaller than the 5 percent they wanted, but more than their previous contract. Drivers receive larger, predetermined raises during their first five years on the job.

At the same time, non-union workers were made eligible for larger raises — an across-the-board raise of 2 percent; a merit-based raise of up to 1.5 percent; and a market-rate raise, PSTA’s first in six years, designed to bring salaries closer to those of transit employees in other cities.

That market-rate raise ended up boosting the salaries of nearly two-thirds of administrative employees by an average of 5.2 percent, according to PSTA, with the highest rising 24 percent — all on top of the other two raises. Miller, for example, received a total bump of 8.4 percent, two and a half times the raise allotted to veteran drivers.

April Murphy, a former PSTA driver who represents the Pinellas union chapter, said drivers felt blindsided by the administrative hikes.

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“They flat-out lied to us,” Murphy said. “How are you going to give our people 3.25 (percent raises) who did all the work, who came to work every day, worked through COVID, and the people that sit at home, they’re going to get big raises, big percentages? It’s just not fair.”

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority drivers and other employees upset over the disparity between their pay and that of administrative, non-union employees protest along Ulmerton Road in Clearwater on Feb. 9.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority drivers and other employees upset over the disparity between their pay and that of administrative, non-union employees protest along Ulmerton Road in Clearwater on Feb. 9. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Before Wednesday, PSTA officials had indicated little support for renegotiation. At a Feb. 18 committee meeting, PSTA board member Joshua Shulman called union leaders’ comments “misplaced” and “bombastic and aggressive.” The market-rate salary study was public knowledge, discussed at PSTA board meetings, Shulman said, and “people negotiating on the union’s side would have been aware that we were doing just that.”

Both Sablan and Murphy acknowledge they should have known about the salary study during bargaining.

“I guess you could say we’re partially at fault here for not attending these meetings,” Sablan said.

The union contract, which runs through September 2024, covers wages for 490 employees, including drivers, maintenance workers and customer service representatives. It calls for drivers to begin at $16 per hour, earning up to $21 in their fourth year. The organization’s average hourly driver wage of $25.84 is about 95.5 percent of what drivers earn in the state’s highest-paying market, Fort Lauderdale.

Still, the raise issue has fired up drivers. About 50 union members attended a virtual grievance hearing on Feb. 15, “which is unheard of,” said PSTA chief operating officer James Bradford. At Wednesday’s meeting, a string of drivers and union reps spent more than an hour urging PSTA to take action.

“We do need to work with you to repair the situation,” Miller said. “I’m committed to that.”

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