A year ago, First Transit, the largest transportation company in the U.S., won the bid to operate Farmington's Red Apple Transit System. Prior to that, the red buses were operated by Presbyterian Medical Service.
Since First Transit took over, Red Apple drivers have seen a wage freeze, lost a dollar an hour in pay and had a drastic cut to their benefit package.
In response, the 12 drivers unionized in October, becoming part of the United Transportation Union.
"We were told that the transition was going to be seamless," said Red Apple driver and union spokesman Steve Moots. "It wasn't. One of the biggest issues is that they took away our health insurance."
Insurance under PMS was through Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Moots said "it was excellent insurance."
The transit company replaced the insurance plan with one that places a dollar limit on the coverage it provides, something that is only legal because the company received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Under the Affordable Care Act, if a plan applies a dollar limit, it can't be less than $750,000 a year. With the waiver, the plan is limited to $10,000 a year of coverage with high deductibles and many procedures left uncovered.
"They came back to us and said we went to bat for you and got you some insurance," Moots said. "What they did was get a limited benefit PPO that didn't pay much of anything."
Limited benefit plans are most often used by companies that employ minimum wage workers and experience high turnover. It is also used by companies that employ seasonal labor.
"The reality didn't sink in until the claims started coming in," Moots said. "A couple of drivers had health issues by the middle of the year, and their claims started coming back unpaid."
Moots completely lost his insurance because he is a part-time driver.
Cynthia Orgin has driven Red Apple buses for the last three years.
"The thing of it is, we pay a lot of money for insurance," she said. "I was hospitalized for three days, and they only paid 10 percent. Now I am stuck with a bill for over $10,000."
Orgin had no idea this was going to be the case.
"I had to get a procedure done, and the doctor checked with the insurance company who said I had to pay a certain amount," Orgin said. "I paid it, and after the procedure was done, the doctor called me and said the insurance wasn't going to pay for it because they said I was a seasonal employee. I'm not a seasonal employee."
One of the ways companies get the federal waiver for limited benefit insurance is by classifying their employees as seasonal, yet Red Apple drivers drive year-round.
Moots did some research and discovered that First Transit is unionized in a lot of other places.
"They may offer different insurance, but if you don't have a union, you don't even get your foot in the door," Moots said.
So the drivers decided to unionize. Of the 12 drivers, 11 voted to form a union. They incorporated Oct. 1.
Since then, the newly formed union has repeatedly reached out to First Transit in an effort to start negotiations. Until last week, First Transit hadn't replied.
According to First Transit company spokesperson Timothy Stokes, the reason the transit company hadn't responded was that letters sent by the union had the wrong address.
"We didn't get a letter until one was forwarded to us by the company at the other address," Stokes said. "We immediately talked to some managers in the area and hope to have a meeting planned around mid- or late January."
Stokes' claim that the company hopes to have meetings in January is news to Bonnie Morr, alternate vice president of United Transportation Union, who was instrumental in helping the Red Apple drivers unionize.
"So far, all we have received is a very brief email with their contact information," Morr said. "We got that last week."
Despite having the wrong address, which came from the National Labor Relations Board, Morr said she has made repeated efforts to reach the company by telephone.
"At this point, it has been extremely difficult getting in touch with First Transit," Morr said. "I have been calling their labor council since October, and that individual never bothered to get back to me. It's very unusual. Generically, when there is an election and the union contacts a company, they usually get back in a reasonable amount of time."
The new union is small, but it still has bargaining power, which is something Moots and the other drivers were worried about.
Being new to unions, they weren't sure how much power they would have.
"We are worried that if we strike, they could just hire 12 new drivers," Moots said. "Then we would be completely out of a job. For many of us who are older, this is our last job."
That worry is pretty much unfounded.
"Not only does being in a union give them more strength because now they speak with one voice, they also have access to our experience and knowledge," Morr said. "If they did decide to strike, First Transit wouldn't be able to just hire new drivers without violating labor laws. Because Red Apple has federal funding in order to support the vehicles or operations, it gives certain job protections."
Farmington officials aren't involved in the dispute.
"It's really an issue between First Transit, who employs them, and the drivers," said Assistant City Manager Bob Campbell. "Of course, we are interested in a continued quality of service."
According to Campbell, First Transit received the contract for running the transit system because it had the most competitive bid.
"The city pays First Transit $54,197 a month," said General Services Office Manager Joanna Oliver. "This January, it goes up 3 percent."
The city paid $54,869 a month to PMS.
"Because that's considered an operating expense, the Federal Transportation Authority refunds the city 50 percent," Oliver said.
The drivers agree that the city isn't involved in the dispute and feel city officials have treated them with respect.
"We really don't want to strike," Moots said. "The city is desiring to get the bus system better, and they are involving us."
For Morr, it's all about what's fair.
"This is a small community and they already aren't high wage earners," Morr said. "But they are your residents and they support the community. When I heard that they had their wages cut and insurance slashed, I thought it was just awful."