Golden Gate Bridge Board OKs Layoffs as COVID-19 Fiscal Crisis Deepens

A pre-pandemic view of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Update, 2:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13: The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District board voted Friday to lay off 146 union workers in January as the agency struggles to deal with a fiscal crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and a plunge in ridership.

The board voted after hearing more than an hour of comment from the district's bus drivers, ferry crew members, patrons and union leaders who sometimes pleaded with, sometimes demanded, that board members find some other way to close a deficit that agency management estimates at $48 million for this fiscal year.

"The proposal to lay off so many workers is an outrageous one," Frank McMurray, a 20-year veteran ferry deckhand, told the board. "The job of the bridge board and management is to be good shepherds, good stewards of the bridge, ferry and the bus. That certainly means preserving the bridge, preserving the ferry and preserving the buses, but it also means preserving the workers that make this whole thing work."

Michael Cornelius, a representative from the Amalgamated Transit Union's international office, joined other commenters in urging the board to consider spending some of its $220 million in capital reserves to avoid the layoffs and to wait to see whether the federal government under the Biden administration will provide new relief funds for transit agencies.

"You owe your employees who continue to work through this pandemic and risked their lives, you owe them," Cornelius said. "You owe them a couple months of patience. You owe them the chance to see what happens in 2021."

District management says the bridge agency has been losing $2 million a week through a combination of reduced toll revenue and fares from bus and ferry passengers. The agency says that despite deep services, the $50 million in federal emergency relief money the agency received last spring will run out by the end of this month.

The proposal put forward by Golden Gate General Manager and CEO Denis Mulligan envisioned eliminating 205 positions — including 146 current employees and 59 open jobs. The workers, including 88 bus drivers and 21 ferry deckhands, would be let go Dec. 5 with a four-week severance package and an extension of several months of medical benefits.

Management also put forward two other budget proposals that went largely undiscussed during the board's deliberations: a $2 dollar "COVID surcharge" toll increase to raise additional revenue or a $1.25 toll increase that would be combined with a 20% furlough pay cut for union workers.

Brian Sobel, a Sonoma County representative who chairs the board's finance committee, said directors were in "a horrible and difficult situation that puts our duties as directors at odds with our feelings of compassion for our employees." But he echoed statements from Mulligan that the agency has no choice but cutting spending or raising revenue and that spending capital funds was not an option.

"We don't have the right to hand out tollpayer and ratepayer money however we wish," Sobel said. "It doesn't belong to the board. We are ... stewards of the money, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to the tollpayers, ratepayers and taxpayers of our respective counties."

Ultimately, the board voted 11-5 to approve an amendment put forward by Sobel that delays the effective date of the layoffs until Jan. 4, 2021. The directors also approved the severance plan and a separate proposal that imposes furloughs equivalent to a 10% pay cut on the agency's management staff.

Original post, Thursday, Nov. 12: The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the agency that runs the Golden Gate Bridge and its associated transit service into a fiscal corner where nearly all of the region’s public transportation operators may soon find themselves.

Faced with a disastrous decline in fare and toll revenue because of coronavirus shelter-at-home orders, and with federal emergency relief finds drying up, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District's board of directors will meet Friday to discuss a series of draconian proposals to close a projected $48 million deficit and keep transit services running.

The alternatives include:

  • Cutting 205 staff positions, including 88 bus drivers and 21 ferry deck hands. If the board approves this option, layoffs would occur Dec. 5.
  • Imposing a $2 toll "surcharge" on southbound cars and motorcycles that would raise the cost of crossing the bridge to $9.70 per trip for FasTrak users and $10.70 for drivers billed for single trips.
  • A hybrid plan that would include a $1.25 toll increase and require the district’s union workers to be furloughed one day a week — equivalent to a 20% cut in pay. Raising tolls would require a public hearing, which would be held Nov. 23.

The board — whose 9 a.m. meeting is open to the public via teleconference — will also consider furloughs for management staff that would be equivalent to a 10% pay cut.

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"We're in a financial crisis — we need to either raise revenues or reduce costs," Denis Mulligan, the bridge district's general manager and CEO, said on KQED's Forum program Thursday. "We should put all options on the table and ask the public what they think."

The district has dramatically reduced bus and ferry service during the pandemic, and Mulligan said cost cutting would inevitably involve layoffs.

"Our biggest expense is people," he said. "We need to reduce the number of people we employ, even though they're great people and great employees."

Mulligan also argued that the district simply can't afford to continue paying employees for whom there's currently little need.

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"Every day we send some bus drivers home without driving," Mulligan said. "They're great employees, but we don't have work for them because no one's riding the bus. And every day we have ferry staff painting curbs and bollards in the parking lot to keep them actively working. The question is ... should we pay and keep them on the payroll even though we don't have the work they're hired for?"

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1575, which represents bus drivers who may be laid off, has pushed back against the district's proposals, saying the agency should dip into its $219 million in capital reserves before imposing toll increases or layoffs.

District management laid out its crisis proposals in a budget memo to board members earlier this week. The memo advised the board that if no action is taken on tolls, layoffs or furloughs, "then, by default, the board will be deciding to spend its Capital Reserves to pay employees for whom there is no work."

The Golden Gate Bridge district is just one of several big Bay Area transit agencies facing tough choices as the pandemic continues to suppress ridership and revenue.

The BART board of directors is scheduled to hear a staff presentation next week on a range of cost-cutting scenarios, including possible new service cuts and offering early retirement incentives to try to reduce its workforce. AC Transit in the East Bay and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the South Bay are also contemplating further service reductions in coming months.

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