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WRTA drivers get extra pay

The Western Reserve Transit Authority, which operates a bus service in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, voted Thursday to give employees an extra week of pay or a “hero bonus” for working closely with the public during the pandemic.

WRTA’s board members voted to give the bonus despite requests from the local union to wait and negotiate hazard pay instead of a bonus week of pay. Several WRTA employees attended the meeting electronically, some wearing red masks with the words “hazard pay” on them.

Tenessa Wills, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 272, said union members want the board to spend more money on the front-line employees and use a larger percentage of WRTA’s $10.3 million pandemic CARES Act funding on employees.

Dean Harris, executive director of WRTA, said negotiations with the union will continue and the issue is not closed.

One week of additional pay isn’t enough when employees regularly are exposed to members of the public, risking exposure to the virus, Wills said.

“Bus operators are dying in this country. We see it first hand. They come in everyday and put their lives on the line,” said Stanely Smalls, a senior organizer with the Amalgamated Transit Union who came from Maryland to support the local members.

Hazard pay won’t save lives, but it is a form of compensation that acknowledges the risk the workers are taking, Smalls said.

With the financial uncertainty brought on by the hit to WRTA’s revenue collections, the board wants to retain the money for potential operating expenses, said J.P. Brown, board president. WRTA is taking more safety protocols than some other public transit systems, limiting close interactions with the riders, Brown said. Passengers, except riders using wheelchairs, enter from the back of the bus, fares no longer are collected, riders have to wear masks and the buses are sanitized.

The board also paid employees regular wages when they weren’t required to work regular hours when services temporarily were reduced in March because of COVID-19, Brown said.

Because sales tax revenue collection is down and operating expenses are up, a shortfall of about $200,000 is expected to grow larger as the year goes on, according to a financial report given at the meeting.

The Warren Express Route connects the Youngstown / Mahoning County routes to the Warren / Trumbull County routes. WRTA utilized state money to increase WRTA’s presence in Trumbull County, adding several new fixed routes March 3 to the already existing Warren Express Route.

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