New RTD contract boosts operators to $24/hour as part of raises

Leaders from the Regional Transportation District and its union hailed a three-year contract, finalized Friday, that will usher in raises exceeding 25% over three years as the transit agency aims to fill gaps in frontline positions.

For bus and train operators, the contract will mean an immediate boost in starting pay from $20.58 to $24 an hour — a rate that will reach nearly $26 in 2024, the final year of the agreement. Longstanding operator shortages, especially among bus drivers, have worsened during the pandemic and pose what RTD officials have said is the greatest challenge to restoring slashed service in coming months and years.

“My next statement serves as a public service announcement: RTD is hiring,” general manager and CEO Debra Johnson said Friday morning at a news conference alongside union leaders inside an RTD maintenance garage. “And we are continuing to offer a $4,000 hiring bonus for several frontline positions, including operators and mechanics.”

After members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 ratified the new collective bargaining agreement this week, RTD’s elected board voted 14-0 Friday morning to approve it. It runs through the end of 2024 and, besides, pay raises, contains a host of changes that RTD and union leaders say will improve working conditions not only to attract new hires but to retain employees. Some of those changes allow more flexibility on vacations and work hours.

Union president Lance Longenbohn characterized five months of negotiations as “a very smooth process.” That’s a contrast with the more acrimonious contract talks that produced the previous contract.

This time, RTD’s labor challenges gave each side a common purpose, allowing them to reach rare agreement on the need for big pay increases. While it’s unclear if the higher pay will be enough to boost the agency’s drawing power in the uber-competitive 2022 economy, both Johnson and Longenbohn expressed optimism.

“We have a very good benefit package here at RTD, so when you consider the whole package of compensation, $24 is competitive,” Longenbohn said. “I know from people I’ve spoken to directly that have told me that will make their decision for them.”

Across-the-board raises for mechanics, technicians and other employees in RTD’s more than 2,100 union-covered jobs will be 16% this year, retroactive to Jan. 1; operators get a slightly higher boost, at 16.6%, in order to make the starting wage hit an even $24. All will receive additional 4% raises at the start of 2023 and again in 2024. Those raises reflect numbers reported by The Denver Post in late February, as the contract was still being finalized.

Union members also will receive a $500 after-tax bonus for ratifying the contract. It doesn’t cover employees in similar jobs at companies that operate some bus routes and train lines on contract with RTD.

New details put the contract’s extra costs at $23.8 million this year, an estimate that RTD officials say was accounted for in this year’s $771 million operating budget. Subsequent union raises and other provisions will add another $7.6 million in 2023 and $7.9 million in 2024, according to an RTD summary.

To enhance retirement benefits for current employees, RTD agreed to make a one-time $160 million contribution to the pension plan by tapping its cash balances.

In recent months, RTD also boosted pay for nearly 1,000 non-union employees.

A Nov. 18 memo provided to The Post outlined a cost-of-living adjustment to salaries, amounting to a 4.5% raise; an $850 bonus to compensate for frozen salaries during most of 2021; and an extra nine days’ pay as “reimbursement” for furloughs non-union employees had to take in 2020 (a requirement that didn’t apply to union workers).

On the union side, RTD reported 183 bus driver jobs were vacant as of January, or 19.2%, while shortages among light-rail operators were less severe. Vacancy rates have reached double digits in several other union-covered positions, as The Post reported as part of a recent series on RTD’s greatest challenges.

RTD faces stark financial trade-offs in coming years as it struggles to fill vacancies and attract riders back. Amid changed commuting patterns, ridership for months has stood at a little over half of pre-pandemic levels.

While RTD is willing to pay more to shore up its workforce, long-in-coming financial crunches mean that through 2027, according to the agency’s forecasts, it may not be able to afford to restore service to more than 85% of pre-pandemic levels, up from about 70% now. The board soon will consider a system optimization plan that proposes gradually cutting some low-ridership routes so RTD can expand service where it’s needed.

Johnson said the new contract would help RTD attract the people it needs to restore some service.

“As we talk about where we’re going — recognizing that we do have some substantial vacancy rates — I believe that we do have enough room (in the budget) … to quickly pivot,” she said.

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