With a top hourly pay rate of $23.80 last year, Luzerne County Transportation Authority bus drivers were the fourth highest paid among transit systems in Pennsylvania, according to a newly obtained report.
The only transit systems paying more were in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, said the 2013 labor trends report compiled by the state Public Transportation Association.
When compared to all transit systems throughout the country, the Luzerne County authority’s bus driver pay ranked 59th, the report shows.
Authority bus drivers have been in the limelight in recent months because the state is withholding $3.16 million in funding to the authority due to years of inflated senior citizen ridership counts.
A recent study commissioned by the state transportation department highlighted many examples of “ghost riders,” or senior riders who were counted in reports but did not exist on recordings from bus video cameras.
Bus drivers were able to log nonexistent riders because they manually press a button on a keypad to record senior passengers, who get free rides. Other passengers must present passes or feed money into a box as they board.
Observers theorize the padding was driven by attempts to boost state funding or ensure job security, but nobody has been charged with falsifying reports or instructing drivers to do so.
Top rate increased
The authority bus drivers’ top pay has increased to $24.40 since the 2013 transportation association report was compiled last spring because the union contract granted a 2.5 percent increase on Oct. 1.
This brings the top bus driver annual salary to $50,752.
Thirty-two of the authority’s 46 full-time bus drivers are at this top pay rate, authority records show.
Bus drivers and vehicle maintenance workers who are in the same union accelerate to the maximum pay scale in five years because their contract contains step increases for newer employees in addition to blanket raises for all.
The top pay for maintenance workers is around $25 per hour, the contract says. The authority employs 15 full-time bus maintenance employees, a staff roster shows.
Two bus drivers at the top scale were paid $60,229 and $61,472 last year with thousands of dollars in overtime factored in, according to records.
A unionized vehicle maintenance worker also passed the $60,000 mark last year, receiving $61,219.
Their pay was surpassed only by the $84,525 compensation for authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish, who oversees the entire bus and van service operation.
Strelish declined comment on the compensation for unionized drivers and maintenance, saying the authority is bound to honor the contract.
Five union workers — two maintenance and three bus drivers — were paid more than Operations Manager James Darr, who received $59,270 last year, according to records.
At least 12 bus drivers and maintenance workers were paid more than $5,000 in overtime last year.
Strelish has said frequent overtime is unavoidable on some routes and still costs less than hiring additional employees with benefits.
The bus drivers and vehicle maintenance workers are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union and have a contract that does not expire until Sept. 30, 2015. They will receive 3 percent raises on Oct. 1.
Union president Paul Jason could not be reached for comment on the compensation.
Van drivers’ pay
Authority van drivers have a different compensation structure and lower pay because they were previously part of county government and are covered by another union, Teamsters Local Union 401.
Prior county commissioners decided in 2011 to put van service for the elderly and disabled under the authority to help county finances.
The highest salary for a van driver is $35,420, or $17.03 per hour. Only two van drivers are at this pay, and they started county employment in 1984 and 1985.
The van driver contract has no step increases, allowing new workers to progress more quickly to a top pay scale.
Van drivers received a 2 percent raise last year, and the starting salary was $21,640.
The Teamsters contract expired the end of 2013, and a new agreement is expected soon, officials say.