Many of 32-year-old Jason Treviño’s colleagues at the VIA Metropolitan Transit body shop are much older than him. Not only do they work on buses that have not yet been disinfected, but they also share the same working space, making social distancing hard.

Treviño spends 40 hours a week fixing windshields, repairing radiators, and doing other maintenance work on VIA vehicles.

“There are times we have to be close,” Treviño said. “And if we’re putting a radiator into a bus, it takes two people. It takes two people to do a number of jobs in maintenance.”

Treviño and other members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 694 are requesting hazard pay from the agency as they continue to report to their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Treviño, the vice president of maintenance at the union, said VIA should be able to draw from its allocated $93.3 million in federal funding established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to give extra pay to transit employees still working.

“We know no one has gotten furloughed or laid off,” Treviño said. “But we have concerns,  working closely with each other in the shop, interacting with the public. [Hazard pay would be] recognition that [VIA cares] about you guys, and this is something to take home to your family.”

Juan Amaya, president of the local union, said he is requesting a 20 percent raise for VIA employees still working in the field during the coronavirus pandemic. The union represents most of the bus and van drivers at VIA and a little over 50 percent of maintenance workers, Amaya said. But the request for hazard pay applies to all employees – drivers, maintenance, transit police, and safety supervisors, Amaya said. 

“We are all in this together,” Amaya said.

The conversation around hazard pay is still new, and VIA management and the union are discussing it, Amaya said. “They’re not saying no, but they’re not saying yes either,” he said.

VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said his conversation with union representatives was only the first on the topic.

However, the agency already is dealing with millions in potential revenue loss for the rest of the year, Arndt said. At a meeting Tuesday, the agency’s vice president of fiscal management and Chief Financial Officer Steve Lange told trustees that VIA estimates it will lose $51.4 million in sales tax revenue for the remainder of 2020.

Lange said VIA will lose an estimated $900,000 per month in ticket sales (VIA waived fees for riders in March) and $5.1 million per month in sales tax revenue. 

“I want to reiterate, reliable forecasts really are not possible at this time … and the CARES Act will help mitigate the adverse impact of some of that lost revenue,” Lange said to the board Tuesday.

VIA also instituted a hiring freeze through September 2020, which saves an estimated $3.3 million. Moving bus routes to Saturday schedules will save $3.6 million, while reduced spending on things such as fuel saves $3.2 million, Lange said Tuesday. 

The agency announced further service reductions Thursday. Starting Monday, some routes will have their weekday schedules reinstituted due to demand. Most routes will go to their Sunday schedules, which means some will not run at all. Service changes can be found on VIA’s website.

Even with cost savings from fuel and service cuts, VIA will still need all $93.3 million from the federal coronavirus relief bill to cover current costs and plan for the future, Arndt said. Employees are still being paid for their regular work hours, whether they are working or not because of service cuts.

27 year VIA employee Gilbert Perez works to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas.
Gilbert Perez, a 27-year VIA employee, works to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“That $93 million has to help cover a multitude of things,” Arndt said. “We have to figure out what we cover, how much we cover, what risk we’re willing to take because we don’t know what the end will be, whether these initial impacts will go into future years. We have so much uncertainty about what happens ahead financially, and we want to make sure we preserve the health of the system and the health of the employee [benefits] system. I’d hate to turn around next year and say you have to double the contributions to your benefits because we can’t cover it anymore.”

No other transit agencies in Texas are currently distributing hazard pay, though some around the United States are, Arndt said.

Six VIA drivers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an email sent to employees Thursday. To protect its employees, VIA has allocated masks for drivers, given them hand sanitizer, wipes, and gloves, and waived fares so that drivers do not have to handle money.

“Honestly, I believe VIA has worked quite a bit with us, compared with what I’m hearing from other transit systems,” Amaya said. “My whole thing is we’re in danger every time we go out there.”

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But the union recognizes how essential their job is, even with the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Without VIA bus operators, many people would be stranded, said Raul H. Chapa, who has worked as a VIA bus driver for 40 years. He wears, with pride, a patch on his sleeve commemorating 3 million miles driven without an accident.

“In most cases, as far as public transportation, we are the only mode of transportation they have,” Chapa said. “We have people for generations who depend on bus operators to take them to and from [places]. If the bus company were not there, then many people would not keep doctors’ appointments, [go buy] groceries, or have any means of getting there.”

VIA Metropolitan Transit bus operator Raul H. Chapa. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Though Amaya said the conversation around hazard pay is still in its preliminary stages, he thinks it should apply until things return to normal.

“We don’t know what the future is going to be,” Amaya said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. … When the city opens up and they say we’re going back to normal, then OK, we go back to our normal wage and go back to our service. And believe me, a lot of operators want to go back to the regular service.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.