Weeks after crying foul over pay hikes for administrative staff, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus drivers and other union employees are getting raises that’ll give them some of the highest salaries in Florida.
PSTA’s board on Wednesday approved sizable pay increases for Service Employees International Union employees at all service levels using $11 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The new deal will replace the old one negotiated last summer, which went into effect last fall.
Drivers will see their starting hourly salaries jump from $16 to $18, while technicians will see theirs jump from $18.50 to $20.50. Hourly wages for veteran drivers will be $27.60, up from $25.84, vaulting Pinellas drivers’ wages from fifth in the state to No. 1, just above Fort Lauderdale and Miami. The new deal also calls for new drivers to reach eligibility for that top salary step months faster than before.
“We opened up the bank, looked at what we could do, and just said, ‘Here you go, let’s divide this up, let’s see where the numbers fall, let’s see where you want to be, let’s see where we can get you,’ ” PSTA chief operating officer James Bradford said. “I think we answered the call, and I hope they feel that and echo those sentiments.”
Drivers last month launched a vocal campaign to reopen salary negotiations, claiming they were left out of part of an agencywide raise process.
At issue was a 2021 study designed to bring PSTA employees’ salaries closer to those of their peers in markets around the state. Union employees, who bargained for a top raise rate of 3.25 percent during last year’s contract negotiation, were not part of that study. Administrative employees, who were, ended up with overall raises that in many cases boosted their salaries much higher — an average of 5.2 percent, with the highest rising 24 percent.
While the study wasn’t a secret — it was discussed at public PSTA meetings — it also didn’t come up during months of collective bargaining sessions. That led union leaders to believe the agency wasn’t being entirely forthcoming about its finances. PSTA leaders disagreed, but at a meeting last month, several board members acknowledged that the union had some valid points, opening the door for the past month of renegotiations.
The new contract will give veteran drivers, technicians and customer service workers raises of between 6.7 percent and 10.3 percent over their previous contract. That falls in line with the 8.4 percent bump given to PSTA CEO Brad Miller in January.
“Our guys and gals deserve what we got,” union representative April Murphy said. “That’s all we ever wanted, is to be treated equal. This is a very big step. And it’s up to us to keep us up there.”
PSTA chief financial officer Debbie Leous said the move made long-term financial sense, as it would make it easier to attract and retain drivers and workers in other union positions.
“Despite the fact that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world and the economy today, with the COVID funds that we’ve received, this is the right time and the right move for all the right reasons,” she said.
The restructured union contract runs until September 2024. When it’s time to bargain again, Bradford pledged full transparency.
“Lessons learned: I think all future compensation studies at PSTA need to include, from tip to tail, A to Z, every person that works here at the same time,” he said. “Let’s not keep putting people in separate pots and calling it all equal. We’re all in this together.”