Grand Valley Transit union workers, citing low pay and frustrated after several negotiating sessions, voted unanimously Tuesday night to authorize the union's executive board to call a strike if future talks are unproductive.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1776, which consists of 32 GVT bus drivers, dispatchers and utility workers, said its union leaders could set a strike date after the latest contract offer from Grand Valley Transit's operating contractor, Transdev Services, was deemed unsatisfactory.

No strike date was set and negotiations should continue, although ATU Local 1776 President Judi DeRusha said there are no future bargaining sessions currently scheduled.

A strike would be the first in GVT's 23-year history.

Bus driver Karen Jones was excited to see the unanimous vote and said her pay over the past four years with GVT has been appalling.

"I made more money 20 years ago working for a temp agency in the South," she said. "Grand Junction as a whole has to be brought up to a proper pay grade."

GVT has 46 employees who are impacted by the talks, but not all are union members. Nearly 80 percent of the workforce turned out for the vote.

"It isn't right that our wages are so low that we have people who have to make a choice if they are going to have heat or have groceries," DeRusha said.

DeRusha is also a bus operator and trainer for GVT and said she has trained roughly 30 new bus drivers over the past year because staff turnover is so high.

The union's contract with Transdev expired Dec. 31. So far the union and representatives from Transdev and GVT management have met six times since mid-November, including twice so far this week.

Transdev became the operating contractor for GVT on Jan. 1, 2017. The union formed in late 2016 when GVT was overseen by MV Transportation, but the previous contract was negotiated with Transdev.

GVT employees make between $11.25 and $13.60 per hour. Entry level employees were paid $10.75 per hour until minimum wage in Colorado increased to $11.10 per hour at the start of 2019. One employee, a 27-year veteran, makes $16.90 per hour and his wage was "grandfathered" in with the previous contract.

The union has requested a starting wage of $16 per hour, which DeRusha said is more in line with what other organizations, including trash pick-up and school bus companies, pay employees who need a commercial driver's license. The union also is asking for improved medical benefits.

"I think we should be compensated the same as any other driver who has a CDL," DeRusha said.

Transdev's offer Tuesday would have started salaries at $13 per hour and offered tiers that maxed out at $15.97. The employee making $16.90 would make $17.60 in 2019 and $18.13 in 2020, according to DeRusha.

GVT General Manager Valdon Lewis, who has been present during the negotiations, provided a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon but declined to answer questions due to the ongoing negotiations.

"Through assistance with a federal mediator, we are hoping to reach a resolution on wages and benefits for our employees tonight or in the very near future," he said prior to the vote.

DeRusha advised the union members to reject the latest deal, but also placed some of the blame on the Grand Valley Regional Transportation Committee, which contracts with Transdev. She called the process confusing and frustrating.

The committee is made up of elected officials from Mesa County, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade, which all fund the GVT in their annual budgets.

Committee Chairman Bennett Boeschenstein, a Grand Junction city councilman, declined to comment on the negotiations but noted the importance of the public transit system and said staff should receive cost-of-living raises.

While some other regional transportation providers are funded through sales or property taxes, GVT's $3.5 million operating budget is received mainly from the Federal Transit Administration, Mesa County, the town of Palisade and the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita. Federal money accounts for nearly half of GVT's budget, local government contributions are about 37 percent and fares contribute about 15 percent. Less than 1 percent is generated from advertising on benches and buses.

GVT last September asked the local entities contributing funds to pony up an additional $200,000 to help fund the minimum wage increase and a new bus. This means Mesa County, which funds 65 percent of the local dollars matching the federal grant money, would contribute $975,000 for its share this year. It was the first time local governments were asked to kick in more funding since 2008.

Mesa County Regional Transportation Planning Office Director Todd Hollenbeck said his office hasn't received a request from Transdev for additional funds, and that the money approved for the county's contribution to fund GVT was approved for the county budget in December. He said any contract negotiations ideally should have been resolved prior to local governments adopting their budgets for the fiscal year.

"Here we are in February, trying to figure this out," Hollenbeck said, calling the timing of the contract negotiation and a request for more money from the union a "disconnect."

At this point, the funding for 2019 is in place with local and federal government contributions. The local entities would have to request supplemental budgets to bridge the gap.

Hollenbeck said if a strike happens, the goal would be to keep service running as much as possible, but it's too soon to tell what that situation would look like.

In 2018, GVT provided 747,415 passenger trips on all of its fixed routes, according to data from Biz Collins, Mesa County senior transportation planner. The transportation agency also has a paratransit service for physically and mentally disabled riders who cannot use the fixed route, as well as a "dial-a-ride" service for transportation in certain areas of the Redlands. Overall, GVT experienced a 2 percent reduction in rides for its fixed routes and other services in 2018 compared to 2017, a stagnant or downward trend in ridership that has been the case since 2012.

In July, GVT eliminated one of its routes to save an estimated $258,000.

DeRusha is still hopeful for a resolution prior to a strike, but will continue to push for what she feels the workers deserve.

"I really hope this doesn't come to a strike. It isn't good for passengers and it's not good for drivers, but you have to do what you have to do to stand up for yourself," she said. "No one will hand you anything. We have to make a stand."

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