Nearly 90 jobs slashed at Pierce Transit as union worries about viral exposure

SEATTLE – Almost 90 employees at Pierce Transit are being laid off or furloughed and it’s all because of coronavirus.

The number of people riding public transit in Pierce County has plummeted since the pandemic forced stay-at-home orders. In some cases for the South Sound transit agency, ridership has fallen by nearly two-thirds.

Service has also been cut as revenue is down, it could be much as $47 million. There is a plan to resume some of the reduced service later this month and bring some people back to work.

The union representing many impacted by the reduction in force say the real concern is working alongside a deadly virus.

“A transit operator’s job was never to go out and die on the job,” said Isaac Tate, President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 758, which represents many who work for the transit agency.

Tate says he has been in the Pierce Transit fold for more than three decades. First as a driver, now representing the union, Tate says for many members, opting for the furlough was an easy choice.

“We do have a lot of members who are afraid in this pandemic so a lot of them were willing to take furloughs,” he said.

The reduction in force represents about 9% of workers at the agency.

‘Our plan is to regrow the service, bring it back and hopefully get back to where we were,” said agency spokesperson Rebecca Japhet.

Some routes may return to service May 24, and even more could be revived in September. But since sales taxes drive a big part of the agency’s budget, it all comes down to what’s happening with the pandemic.

“We won’t get solid tax return numbers for a while,” said Japhet. “If we have to adjust them we will do that.”

The agency says it has been aggressive with sanitation measures at stops and onboard coaches.  Each driver is equipped with PPE, passengers enter from the back and capacity has been reduced.

Tate believes members are most concerned about catching Covid-19.

“In an operator’s job, you’re pretty much in a, for lack of a better term, a 40-foot petri dish,” he said.

Back in 2017, the transit agency celebrated a long-awaited return to service levels not seen since before the Great Recession.

So far, the cutbacks have not impacted a planned first-of-its-kind rapid line between Tacoma and Spanaway. Its funding mechanism is separate from these recent cuts and the program is still on track for a 2023 opening.

Pierce Transit offers for essential workers whose normal bus routes may have been cut back during the crisis.

More information can be found here.