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RTD, Regional Transportation District, Denver, transportation, public transportation, Denver

The union for bus and light rail operators at the Regional Transportation District has filed a grievance on behalf of 16th Street MallRide drivers, while others are calling out the agency for permitting too many riders on buses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“RTD decided on its own to cancel downtown free shuttle service and, more recently, decided to violate the Collective Bargaining Agreement and force those operators to perform work,” a bulletin from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 informed its membership — approximately 1,500 of RTD's operators. The bulletin, which announced a class action grievance against the agency, asserted that operators have the right to vote on their work.

Lance Longenbohn, the president of the local, said that grievances are resolved in meetings between the union and RTD, with the potential for arbitration if there is no agreement. “Ironically, the contract does not allow forced day-off work either," Longenbohn said. “But we have tolerated that for the past five years, as a function of public safety.”

Longenbohn declined to provide a copy of the grievance, calling it an internal document. His comments referenced the mandated overtime that a majority of bus operators were ordered to work as a result of an operator shortage. A contract signed in December 2017 did lay out a procedure for assigning overtime work to employees. The shortage led to previously-planned cuts to RTD service that would begin in May, but those changes were preempted by a 70% drop in ridership due to the pandemic.

Now, RTD will implement weekend service levels beginning on April 19 and lasting through September. As part of the adjustment, the agency eliminated the MallRide route and attempted to reassign drivers.

“All of those operators who work out of the Platte Division were given other route assignments without any consultation with the union,” said Yvette J. Trujillo, international vice president of the ATU. “Most of the operators on the mall have not driven any other RTD vehicles in quite some time.” She added that having operators drive other types of vehicles without proper training poses a safety risk.

RTD disputed the characterization that they unilaterally put drivers into an unsafe situation.

“We asked for volunteers and reallocated those who were willing to work other services that could help the overall operation,” said Pauletta Tonilas, RTD’s assistant general manager for communications. “The ATU was aware of this and agreed with this approach.” 

She denied that the agency has ordered drivers from the cancelled MallRide and MetroRide services to work other routes. However, RTD did request that the ATU require its members to assist with other operations, to which the agency did not receive a response.

The grievance follows several measures RTD implemented in recent weeks to protect drivers and passengers from contracting COVID-19, including the implementation of rear-door boarding, ordering 21,000 protective masks, and limiting the number of passengers to 15 on buses and 20 on larger buses. The agency pointed to early-April guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recommending that transit systems cap passenger loads at 20% of vehicle capacity to ensure a distance of six feet between riders.

However, in an e-mail to Gov. Jared Polis and the RTD board of directors on Monday, ATU member Bob Dinegar blasted the agency for setting maximums that were closer to 50% of bus capacity.

“To be clear, excluding ADA seating sections on 40’ buses leaves approximately 31 seats, on larger articulating buses approximately 38,” Dinegar wrote, referring to designated seating for those with disabilities. “20% would be six passengers plus ADA on the typical 40’ RTD fixed route bus.”

Dinegar called for a maximum of eight passengers on standard buses, saying that anything more would be “thwarting physical distancing objectives and endangering human lives.” Trujillo agreed with him, and added that she hoped RTD supervisors and security would help ensure that passengers are using vehicles for essential travel per the stay-at-home order, rather than as day shelters.

"I was informed that just last week they had supervisors out performing uniform inspections to ensure the proper color socks are being worn, shirts tucked in and buttoned properly," Trujillo said. "I’m sure time and resources could have been better utilized to ensure the operators felt safe."

Tonilas responded that the state’s guidance on bus vehicles was “conservative,” and that setting maximum loads “is not an exact science.”

“Much of it comes down to everyone’s personal responsibility and people needing to be our partners in safety and use good judgement,” she said. “If a bus or train car looks too crowded, then people should get on a different train car or what for the next bus. On our higher frequency routes where this has occurred, another bus isn’t far behind.”

While RTD only announced its capacity limits on Friday, it has continuously emphasized that passengers should use their discretion and avoid boarding buses if there does not appear to be sufficient room for distancing. Security officers are attempting to enforce RTD policy that riders deboard at the end of a route.

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