Hundreds of Orange County public bus drivers employed through private contractors lost their jobs last week, with their benefits set to follow them out the door, after county transportation officials cut down bus service in response to the coronavirus public health crisis.
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The only difference between those who lost their jobs, and those who didn’t, was who they were working for, local union leaders say.
Bus drivers directly employed by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) haven’t been laid off, and those who are on leave because they have children or are seniors and especially vulnerable to the virus are still getting leave pay, according to their union.
Union leaders estimated more than 300 laid off workers — many of whom wore the same uniforms, drove the same vehicles, and ran the same routes as OCTA employees — who were employed through two contractors, MV Transportation and First Transit, as part of OCTA’s years-long strategy to outsource public bus drivers to private companies.
Drivers employed through MV Transportation operated OC ACCESS vehicles, which serve the elderly and people living with disabilities, while First Transit employees operated some of the county bus system’s fixed routes.
Both companies’ contracts with OCTA have added up to nearly $600 million in public dollars.
“Not more than two, three months ago, these were bus drivers who weren’t considered important to our community in Orange County. And now, these are the very people that are putting themselves on the front line. They’re putting themselves in harm’s way,” said Eric Jimenez, Secretary-Treasurer for Teamsters Local 952, the labor union representing drivers employed through both OCTA and the subcontractor companies.
“They’re putting themselves in a position to maybe get this virus, but they’re making our community go round,” he added. “They’re considered essential workers now.”
Those laid off by MV Transportation last Friday were expected to see their benefits cut off Tuesday night, while those laid off by First Transit last Wednesday will see their benefits expire next month, according to the union.
For First Transit to continue benefits to next month, Jimenez said, “took teeth-pulling.”
First Transit Spokesman Jay Brock in a written statement said the company’s drivers are being “furloughed,” due to “decreased demand during this unprecedented time,” and that employees will be allowed to file for unemployment. He didn’t respond to follow up questions on whether employees would be guaranteed their jobs back at the end of the public health crisis.
A spokesman for MV Transportation said he wasn’t readily available for comment Tuesday.
Those privately-hired drivers don’t get treated the same — more like “second-class bus drivers,” Jimenez said.
Where “OCTA has decided to take care of their members,” Jimenez added, “they’re very reluctant to push” that message “down to their subcontractors.”
“Decisions on staffing by First Transit and MV are made by those companies,” said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter in a written statement, adding “we strongly value the dedicated work of all of Orange County’s coach operators, who continue to provide essential services to bus riders who still rely on our services.”
Teamsters Union staff member Charles Johnson said OCTA, with their employees, “stepped up a little, especially for our senior coach operator 65 years or older.”
“I specify a little bit because, for example,” Johnson said the agency isn’t providing things like masks, wipes or other sanitary supplies to drivers. Many of the operators are also working less hours due to the service cuts.
“OCTA coach operators are also allowed to bring and wear paper face masks if they choose,” Carpenter said in his written statement. “It’s important to note that the CDC does not recommend that people who are healthy wear a face mask to protect themselves from COVID-19. Operators are also able to bring and use their own sanitizing wipes if they choose.”
The agency is also taking steps to clean the buses and wipe down surfaces that are most touched, like handrails and seat belts.
Vehicle operators who need to stay home due to having children or underlying health conditions are still getting paid, and the agency “hasn’t laid off anybody,” Johnson said.
“OCTA has no plans for layoffs at this time,” Carpenter said.
Transportation agency CEO Darrell Johnson made no mention of the layoffs while giving an update to the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday, only that the agency’s recent service cuts have reduced the amount of operators needed to function.
The agency made those service cuts on March 23, switching all public buses to weekend service where they typically run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
That’s compared to regular weekdays when service typically runs from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Depending on demand, some routes begin and end earlier.
“At OCTA, about 80 percent of the cost to operate bus service is subsidized, with passengers paying 20 percent in fares,” Carpenter said. It’s a problem made worse by years of steadily declining ridership before the public health crisis.
As a result of the crisis, “a typical day now has fewer than 35,000 total bus boardings, compared to closer to 125,000 daily before this crisis,” he said.
Jimenez said employers of laborers with essential societal functions, like bus drivers, need to come to understandings with those workers’ unions — “those are some of the things that OCTA chose to do … If workers had underlying medical issues, they were given the opportunity to stay home paid. If they could show they had to stay at home with kids, they get some pay.”
Meanwhile with MV and First Transit, “although we did talk, it was very little talk. Very little negotiating occurred, and they pretty much came out and just said, ‘Hey, this is the way we’re doing things. This is the way it’s gonna happen,’” Jimenez said.
“Nobody should be left behind at a time like this,” he added.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.