Striking Phoenix Bus Drivers Call Transdev's Canceling Health Insurance Inhumane, Say Conditions Must Improve

Striking Phoenix bus drivers admit that they’re starting to worry about how the strike is affecting their lives, but they say they’re not willing to give up.

“Even though I don’t have money, I couldn't face my fellow workers knowing I let them down," said Vanessa Washington, a driver and single mother, explaining why she's participating in the strike. “I’m making this sacrifice so hopefully things will get better.”

Washington is one of the drivers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433 who went on strike Friday, disrupting service on 34 bus routes in the Phoenix metropolitan area and leaving thousands of people stranded ahead of Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship game in Glendale.

Union members have nine demands for their employer, Transdev, that involve bereavement time, uniform allowances for bus drivers, bathroom breaks, a tiered payment system, and vacation time. Meetings between union leaders and Transdev representatives took place over the weekend and on Monday, but an agreement is yet to be reached.

The bus drivers are not getting paid while on strike and have lost their health insurance. Transdev cut off access Thursday, several hours before the drivers voted to strike. Union members said their health insurance was canceled even though their plan premiums for January were paid in December and that employees were still having payroll deductions in January to cover February premiums.

Gilbert Balderas, a bus driver in Phoenix for 10 years, said he needs his health insurance to cover medication for multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He needs to take a pill every day to control cancer cells, and a pack of 28 pills costs about $12,000.

Balderas said his health insurance would have covered the pills, plus a treatment that helps reduce and delay bone complications caused by the disease. He's scheduled to go for the treatment Friday, but it costs about $17,000 without coverage — so he will have to skip both it and the medication.
“I’m just disgusted,” Balderas said, referring to Transdev’s decision to cancel  his insurance. “We’re human beings. Even if we have our differences, they have no integrity to do this to us. I just can’t believe it.”

Employees don’t have access to health insurance or other benefits because they’re not working, Transdev spokesman Troy Corder said in a statement to New Times. He said they can continue getting insurance through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which provides temporary coverage to employees who lose health benefits. But according to the U.S. Department of Labor, coverage under COBRA often is more expensive.

“The loss of healthcare coverage and the necessity to elect COBRA to continue medical benefits during a strike was made known to the employees and the union before they went out," Coder wrote in an e-mail. "It was a decision made by them.” 

As for bus drivers’ 401(k) plans, because they aren't working, their normal contributions, based on salaries, and resulting company contributions aren't paid during the strike, Coder stated.

“However, employees continue to have all other normal daily access to their 401(k) accounts,” he said.

“They had a very good offer on the table, including retroactive pay increases to last July, but the ATU Local #1433 chose to strike instead," Coder added. "We hope the strike ends soon and our drivers can get back to receiving the good pay and benefits they are entitled to receive if working.”

Leslye Green, a single mother who’s been a bus driver in Arizona for 19 years, said she also hopes the strike will end soon so that she can go back to earning money, but she said conditions must improve first.

“We really want to get back to our buses and get back to our routes,” she said. “We want to see our regular customers, our passengers, our kids who are trying to get to school, and our senior citizens who are trying to get to their doctor’s appointments. We’re hurting, and they’re hurting, too.”