FILE - Pennsylvania Turnpike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike

(The Center Square) – Teamsters union leaders representing the hundreds of turnpike workers laid off without warning earlier this month said they’ll sue state officials for unfair labor practices.

“This was nothing more than a premeditated hit … ,” said William Hamilton, international vice president east for the Teamsters, during a joint Senate hearing this week. “And [the Turnpike Commission] using coronavirus to substantiate its claims that it needed to be shut down immediately – my gosh, if we ran the country the same way you’re running the turnpike, we’d be in a pretty bad state."

Hamilton told senators on both the Transportation and Labor and Industry Committees that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s June 2 decision to lay off 492 fare collectors permanently and accelerate its transition to cashless tolling two years early came out of left field. 

“To me, this is intentional, and I don’t believe we got a fair shake,” he said. “I believe our members have really gotten the short end of the stick, and I don’t believe anyone in the Capitol understands this is not reversible." 

Hamilton’s comments follow two hours of testimony from turnpike staff and commissioners who insisted that the unforeseen impact of the coronavirus pandemic forced their hand. Since Gov. Tom Wolf furloughed fare collectors on March 16, Commission CEO Mark Compton said revenues dropped more than $100 million.

The commission also said it slashed capital spending 24 percent, instituted a hiring freeze, offered voluntary retirement and delayed a July state tax payment of $112.5 million in an effort to prevent the layoffs, which represent more than a quarter of their 1,800-plus workforce.

“Personally, it was a very tough decision for me,” Compton said. “We provided assurances for these employees. What brought us to do this now is that this thing [pandemic] has not been measured in days, but in months. There’s no end in sight.” 

Although the governor’s mitigation efforts and stay at home orders slashed turnpike traffic in half, Compton said, the commission repeatedly told union officials their members would return to work when the restrictions lifted. The Teamsters even signed a new collective bargaining agreement, ratified May 19, that included wage hikes and expansions of health care benefits, severance pay and tuition reimbursement – things Hamilton now doubts the state had any intention of fulfilling.

“I did not see this coming,” Compton said. “This an unprecedented time for us and I absolutely wish I would have not given those assurances.”

Senators on both sides of the aisle questioned why Compton never mentioned the layoffs during a May 12 meeting with the chamber’s Transportation Committee – or again during Secretary Yassmin Gramian’s confirmation two weeks later. 

“I don’t buy the argument of health and safety,” said Transportation Committee Minority Chairman John Sabatina, D-Philadelphia. “When you make a promise to 500 people, you need to keep your promise.”

Compton defended the commission’s decision, noting that cashless tolling gives them the ability to protect their fare collectors in a way that other businesses with cashiers just can’t offer. 

And slashing maintenance employees or any other category of worker within the commission’s 1,800 complement wasn’t a realistic option either, he said.

“Do you want the roads plowed? Those are the kinds of decisions we were facing,” Compton said. “What would you have had us do if you were in our situation?”

Turnpike Commission Vice Chairman William Lieberman said the decision, although difficult, made the most sense for the long-term welfare of the turnpike. 

“We felt like we had no choice,” he said. “You [senators] always said to me to run the turnpike like it’s a business so that it’s healthy and stays healthy. That’s what we did here.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.