The benefits agreed upon in the contract are contingent upon the District allocating extra funds for the operations of the bus system. The ATU, which represents Circulator’s 189 drivers, had asked the city to provide $3 million in the next budget to cover the wage and benefit increases. The city’s transportation committee made a recommendation for $1 million, essentially leaving First Transit to cover the rest.
It could not be immediately determined on Friday whether any progress has been made in the budget negotiations on the city front. But some city leaders have said in recent weeks that they are working to find funds to incorporate in the next fiscal budget that is currently under review.
“The city told us to negotiate the contract so we did our part,” said Sesil Rubain, the trustee with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764. “Now it’s up to the city to come up with the funding.”
The District funds the Circulator service but entrusts Metro with Circulator operations and oversight. Metro contracts with First Transit to run the system. The company, which operates several other bus systems across the United States, has run the Circulator since its launch more than a decade ago and is on a $41.6 million, two-year contract that expires next year, according to Metro.
After hearing that the company had argued that it does not have enough revenue to increase the pay, D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif A. Dormsjo said last month that the city would pay for the higher wages if the union successfully negotiated them.
DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said the agency is “pleased to hear that labor and management have reached a new 3-year agreement reflecting more competitive wages and benefits for DC Circulator operators.” He said DDOT has requested information from Metro on additional contract costs associated with this agreement.
Drivers had been rallying for months for better salaries, complaining that they provide the same level of service as Metrobus drivers but earn significantly less. Labor leaders said the wage gap has created high turnover in the D.C. Circulator operations, as drivers come in at $16.56 an hour, train, stay two or three years, and often move on when they see it will take a decade to reach the top hourly pay of $23.47.
Drivers often go to Metro, which has a starting hourly wage of $19 that can rise in time to as much as $34, according to Metro and labor contracts.
The union membership ratified the contract this week, and the union and First Transit are expected to officially sign it within days, Rubain said. Once that’s done, the salaries will go into effect immediately, he said, noting that all workers will get a pay raise. Drivers at the top of the pay scale of $23.47 will get raises over the next three years until they reach the $31.69 hourly rate.
As part of the labor negotiations, Union leaders say First Transit has also agreed not to require employees to drive buses that are not in a safe operating condition, answering to growing calls for safety improvements.
An August report by the consulting firm Transit Resource Center found that First Transit had fallen short on maintenance, with some defects severe enough that buses should have been pulled from service until they were repaired. A follow-up inspection in January of a smaller sample of buses found improvements, yet lingering maintenance issues.
The first audit found many examples of neglected maintenance, including instances of engine defects because of oil leaks that were not repaired, and windows that wouldn’t open because they were not lubricated during routine inspections. There were defective mirrors, windshield washers and other equipment controlled by the driver, the inspection of 42 of the D.C. Circulator’s oldest buses showed. Poor oversight has led to troubling safety and operational flaws, according to the audits commissioned by DDOT.
City officials said many of the flaws found in the August audit have been fixed and that DDOT is taking a greater role in the oversight of oversight of the city’s distinctive red buses that provide more than 5.1 million trips annually on six lines.