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Port Authority recruits drivers to fill retirement void

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 8:34 p.m.

Port Authority of Allegheny County is hiring more than a dozen bus drivers this month and recruiting dozens more to keep pace with retirements, the transit agency said.

Financial uncertainty surrounding Port Authority and labor concessions affecting hires make it harder to attract drivers, according to a union official.

“I'm not sure everyone is jumping in line to come work for Port Authority,” said Steve Palonis, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, which represents 1,300 drivers.

Palonis said 16 people will be hired and will begin a 10-week driver training program in two weeks to fill vacancies that recent retirements created. They will make $10 an hour during training. After they're trained, their wages will jump to $17.06 an hour, the equivalent of $34,120 a year for drivers who work 40-hour weeks.

Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said the agency placed some of this month's hires on a waiting list as much as three years ago. Port Authority maintains a pool of driver recruits so it can fill vacancies quickly when needed. All had to pass preliminary entrance tests.

In recent years, however, Port Authority has recalled laid-off drivers to fill vacancies, including about 100 last year to maintain staffing levels as a wave of retirements occurred. Many drivers opted to retire before officials completed negotiations on a new, four-year contract that included a projected $60 million in concessions. That depleted the furlough list.

Several concessions in the contract will affect hires, including an 18-month wage freeze and the elimination of lifetime health care coverage. The contract guarantees coverage for no longer than three years after retirement.

On the flip side, new hires will be eligible for pensions. In recent years, Port Authority changed pension plans for its nonunion workers, police and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers employees to 401(k)-style plans.

Palonis said three major layoffs occurred between 2005 and 2011, and more layoffs could occur if the state does not increase funding to the agency.

“Could that have an adverse effect on hiring? Definitely,” Palonis said.

Palonis hopes increased state funding this year will erase would-be workers' concerns and that the agency will beef up transit service and staffing in years to come. Port Authority operates about 100 bus, light-rail and incline routes today, down from more than 200 just five years ago.

Pharo said Port Authority is looking to place 40 to 50 new people on its driver waiting list.

According to an online job posting, Port Authority seeks applicants who are at least 21 and have a valid driver's license and a high school diploma or GED. Those without a commercial driver's license will earn one during the agency's training program.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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