Turnpike layoffs under scrutiny

Senators question timing of decision

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s decision-making process that led to the layoffs of nearly 500 toll collectors came under scrutiny during a hearing of two Senate committees Monday.

The layoffs, scheduled to start Thursday, were announced June 2 after the turnpike reported a record drop in traffic counts and toll revenue since mid-March when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and other governors declared public health emergencies and issued stay-at home orders in response to COVID-19 infections.

Senators of both parties on the Transportation and Labor and Industry committees voiced deep dissatisfaction with the layoffs and not getting word ahead of time about them.

Sens. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, and John Sabatina, D-Philadelphia, suggested they will try to fashion a legislative package to bolster the turnpike’s fiscal position in order to rescind the layoffs.

“I know your heels are dug in on this, but maybe we can delay this dismissal,” said Senate Majority Transportation Committee Chair Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.

Senators also asked why the layoffs were announced two weeks after the Turnpike Commission ratified a collective bargaining agreement with unionized employees and top officials gave assurances to union officials that the toll collector jobs would be safe through 2021 even though the commission has been moving in recent years to a cashless system.

While announcing the layoffs, the commission said that a cashless, all-electronic tolling system introduced on March 16 under emergency orders would become permanent.

The cashless, all-electronic system relies on using license plate scanners to send tolls through the mail to motorists.

“I just don’t see how this in two weeks could all change,” said Senate Labor and Industry Committee Minority Chair Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia.

Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton said a combination of several factors led to the layoff decision.

“I didn’t see this coming,” said Compton. “We are in unprecedented times. We are looking to keep this organization afloat.”

The commission estimates toll revenue will decline by more than $100 million for its fiscal year that ended May 31, he added. The turnpike has experienced a traffic decline of 46 percent exacerbated by the loss of commuter traffic.

The only other event that has similarly affected turnpike traffic and revenue was World War II, said Compton.

He said the layoffs will result in net savings of $42 million this fiscal year and $65 million in the next fiscal year after health care, unemployment compensation and tuition assistance is paid.

The commission realized it couldn’t recall the toll collectors anytime soon because of fear of spreading COVID-19 infections, said Compton, observing a toll collector in the Philadelphia area can deal with 100 customers in an hour.

“We realized there was no timetable yet for which we could safety bring collectors back,” said Compton.

Turnpike Chief Operating Officer Craig Shuey said some estimates show it could take four years for turnpike traffic to return to its pre-pandemic levels. The loss of commuter traffic will continue to be a problem as people work from home even in “green” counties, he added.

Officials pointed to other cost-saving moves such as cutting capital projects, freezing salaries and hiring and securing a $200 million line of credit.

One of the commission’s obligations is an annual payment to the Transportation Department to help support mass transit under terms of a 2007 state law. The commission has also delayed its quarterly $112 million payment to PennDOT from the initial due date of July to October.

‘This is a multi-pronged, faceted approach as we overcome the devastation of the pandemic,” said Compton.

But some senators voiced skepticism that the pandemic is the reason for the layoffs.

“Obviously, this was the perfect opportunity to flip the switch and say we are going to be fully automated,” said Senate Labor and Industry Committee Majority Chair Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington.

She said the toll collectors are being thrown out of a life raft into an ocean at a time of historic unemployment.

“They (commission) used the pandemic to lay them off when they had other reasons,” said William Hamilton, an international vice president with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in testimony. He said the Teamsters plan to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the commission.


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