LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Last spring, when the coronavirus first appeared in Louisville, Lillian Brents, who was driving a city bus at the time, sent her asthmatic daughter to live with friends who were able to quarantine themselves at home.
âWhen COVID first hit, I just thought it was a death sentence for her,â Brents, a mother of five, said of her daughter. âIt was hard on me, mentally and physically, because I was never far from my children. But I still had to pay bills.
Last November, Brents was elected president of Local 1447 of ATU, the drivers union of the Transit Authority of River City (TARC). One of its first acts was to call on drivers to receive the same type of bonus – variously referred to as danger, essential or “thank you” pay – that many other essential workers received at the start of the pandemic. And for months, she said, those calls have fallen on deaf ears.
Now COVID-19 is resurfacing and its appeal has taken on a new urgency. âPeople always put their homes and their lives at risk,â she said.
Not only is Brents calling for TARC drivers to receive essential pay and for drivers of TARC3 paratransit vehicles to get a raise, but she is calling for the removal of TARC Executive Director Carrie Butler.
In comments to the Metro Council Thursday, Brents criticized a “lack of COVID security measures” at TARC and “hostile leadership.”
âCarrie Butler is not a good candidate for TARC,â Brents told board members. “The union is demanding that she be replaced.”
TARC spokeswoman Jenny Recktenwald defended the agency in a statement written to Spectrum News 1 this week. She noted that TARC continues to provide workers with PPE, regularly disinfect buses and adhere to “all CDC and Transportation Security Administration guidelines for passengers and workers.” As to the essential remuneration request, Recktenwald wrote that TARC management “will respond to this request in due course”.
When the first wave hit
When the coronavirus hit the United States, a lot of things stopped, but the TARC buses kept rolling. âWhether people needed to go to the grocery store, to doctor’s appointments, or to work, whatever the need was, we were essential to essential workers,â said Brents.
TARC responded to the onset of the pandemic by providing drivers with gloves, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, while regularly disinfecting buses. It established social distancing rules and forced passengers to exit in the back of the bus, reducing contact with drivers.
But, like many workplaces, TARC struggled to obtain PPE and drivers reported hanging shower curtains on buses serve as a barrier between passengers.
âWe deal with the public. We’re constantly on the line, âBrents said. “But when you talk about compensation, everyone is silent.”
As the pandemic entered its second month, some essential frontline workers, including Amazon and Kroger employees, began to receive risk bonuses and bonuses from their employers. Several months later, frustrated TARC drivers, some wearing T-shirts saying âTARC doesn’t care about us,â voiced their concerns on the steps of the agency’s headquarters.
Dozens of employees rallied with signs and megaphones to demand better PPE – some drivers have accused TARC of providing meager amounts of hand sanitizer and dried sanitizer wipes – along with essential wages.
âIt’s something we’ve been asking for for over a year now,â Brents said this week.
Recktenwald admitted that Brents had been asking for a basic salary for months, but said the union leader had long failed to submit the request in writing. This was necessary, she wrote, because “any change in the remuneration of ATU members would require a change in the collective agreement.”
Brents disagreed with both of these statements. She said written requests for essential compensation were made by her successor last summer and argued that this compensation could be dispersed outside the collective agreement. She added: “It’s not even something we should have to ask.”
Vaccines are coming, but so are delta
Transit workers across the country were among the first to gain access to COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021. In February, TARC drivers began receiving vaccines. Recktenwald said the TARC leadership had worked with the city’s health department “to get its coach operators and maintenance workers through the LouVax clinic,” which had been set up at the fairground for several months earlier this year.
As vaccination increased in Louisville and cases of COVID-19 declined, a sense of normalcy began to return to TARC. All pre-pandemic bus routes have resumed and laid-off employees have returned to work, although ridership remains roughly half of what it was before the pandemic.
The low number of cases in late spring and early summer allowed TARC drivers to breathe and made them feel the pandemic was drawing to a close. Then the delta variant hit. âJust when we thought we were on the home stretch. Just when we were thinking, âHey, they’ve got a vaccine,â it’s going again, âBrents said.
The number of weekly COVID cases in Louisville is now comparable to that of last winter, the deadliest period of the pandemic. Brents said this has led to an immediate concern for the safety of drivers and their families, who have no choice but to come into daily contact with members of the public, many of whom may not have no access to masks or may not be vaccinated. âEveryone is just overwhelmed,â Brents said.
But she pointed out that TARC drivers continue to get behind the wheel and serve the public. “I’m just asking TARC to take care of those who have been taken care of by everyone,” she said.