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RTD, flush with COVID relief money, is calling back laid-off employees

RTD has slammed the brakes on layoffs for roughly 250 operators and other frontline employees, saying $200 million in expected pandemic relief aid will help the transit agency chart a path toward restoring some service this year.

The Regional Transportation District also is reversing furloughs and salary cuts that had been planned for dozens of its highest-paid management employees, including a 7.5% cut for the dozen or so employees making more than $180,000.

But the agency isn’t calling back 90 non-union employees who left the agency in recent weeks, a spokeswoman said Thursday. Those management-side jobs are still deemed unnecessary, given reduced bus and train service levels.

“Now that we have that injection of stimulus funds, that has obviously changed things,” said RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas. The called-back operators, she added, will give RTD “flexibility to be able to put additional supplemental trips on the heavier-ridden routes.”

RTD’s ridership has fallen sharply during the pandemic, along with some tax revenues, prompting the agency to slash and then fine-tune bus and train service. Officials approached 2021 uncertain of how they might afford to restore service as ridership inches back up — especially if crowding intensifies aboard vehicles quickly while pandemic safety restrictions remain in place.

But word came last week that RTD would receive as much as $203.4 million from a $900 billion federal coronavirus pandemic aid package signed into law in late December by former President Donald Trump.

By then, RTD already had begun notifying operators, mechanics and other union-represented workers of impending layoffs in January. The overall target was 399 positions, including 309 among union ranks.

The union says about 250 members ultimately received notices, with year-end retirements and other departures reducing the number. All who worked in full-time positions have been recalled, while the union is negotiating with RTD over roles for 137 part-time workers who will be called back soon, Tonilas said.

The union welcomed the decision but expressed frustration. The havoc has affected the same operators RTD long has struggled to retain — a problem that was the focus of a critical state audit released Thursday, CPR News reported.

“We told them back at the beginning of December not to move forward with at least giving out the layoff notices,” said Lance Longenbohn, president of Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1001. “We told them the (pandemic aid) money was coming.”

But Tonilas said the layoff process was set in motion by the required adoption of RTD’s budget by its elected board in November. It included a $629 million operating plan, which now will increase with the aid money.

Even more aid to urban transit agencies is possible under a new $1.9 trillion relief package proposed recently by President Joe Biden.

RTD’s new general manager and CEO Debra Johnson has welcomed the federal aid.

“RTD and our transit peers nationwide provide a crucial lifeline for many people during this pandemic,” she said in a statement last week. “Our essential employees have continued to deliver service to those who need it most, and we are committed to doing so as we look ahead.”

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