FARMINGTON — Frustration has turned into hopelessness for Farmington's 12 Red Apple Transit drivers.

The last two years brought a round of pay cuts and significant reductions to medical insurance coverage. Negotiations for better coverage have stalled.

Red Apple drivers say they're holding on to the fading hope that Farmington's city officials will intercede.

"The city set this up then they threw us under the bus, and that's not a pun," said Steve Moots, a Red Apple driver and union spokesman.

City Council voted to give First Transit, a subsidiary of an international transport group based in Aberdeen, Scotland, a contract to operate the regional bus system on Dec. 7, 2010. The system was operated by Presbyterian Medical Service, or PMS, prior to the take over.

The drivers' medical insurance under PMS was Blue Cross Blue Shield according to a Daily Times article written in December 2011.

That coverage was replaced by First Transit with a so-called "mini-med" plan offered through Aetna and typically used to cover seasonal or temporary employees. The plan imposes a low dollar limit on the coverage provided, a practice that the Affordable Health Care Act will phase out by 2014. First Transit was able to offer that plan because of a waiver obtained from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The drivers voted to unionize with the United Transportation Union in October 2011, and for a while, a resolution seemed to be on its way.


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From January to August 2012, union representatives and First Transit officials met about five or six times, said Bonnie Morr, union spokeswoman.

First Transit offered the company's standard medical insurance during the August 2012 meeting, she said.

"We were about to accept the proposal, then they said they got an email from corporate saying that Farmington was exempt (from that plan)," Morr said.

Follow-up meetings in September and October 2012 were canceled by First Transit, Morr said.

"While we do not discuss specifics involving bargaining proposals outside of negotiations with unions, it is always First Transit's goal to offer its employees competitive benefits," said Timothy Stokes, a company spokesman, in an emailed statement. "Company officials have been available and willing to work with the United Transportation Union to reach an agreement regarding Red Apple drivers. We hope that negotiations will continue and a labor agreement will be reached in the near future."

First Transit receives federal and city funding to operate Red Apple Transit.

In fiscal year 2012, the company received a $437,964 federal grant and $441,811 from the city of Farmington, according to records provided by City Manager Rob Mayes.

The fact that tax dollars are involved is an added cause for concern, Morr said.

While they await a solution, Red Apple drivers say they feel deceived by First Transit and abandoned by the city and the elected officials they say should be steping in on their behalf.

Jimmy Franks has been a driver for four years. His wife had cancer about 15 years ago and recently experienced other health problems, he said.

"She had some bleeding problems recently and (the doctors) wanted to take a scope to see what the problem was," Franks said. "She couldn't do it. We just couldn't afford it."

The bleeding problem traced back to a stomach issue and was solved through a diet change, but Franks is still worried.

"I'm scared if anything happens, we won't be able to afford it," he said. "They just took everything from us. The insurance is no good. Here we are just trying to make a living and they decimated us."

The plan's limited coverage also caused significant problems for Kathy Strube, a six-year Red Apple driver.

"I pay $600 per month and I get $1,000 per year per person for doctor visits," she said. "For the hospital, we get up to $10,000 and we get up to $100 a month for prescriptions. I can't do this. I have to work overtime to pay the bills. (The plan) says affordable. You tell me how $600 a month a person for $1,000 (of coverage) is affordable."

Strube's son, Derik McElroy, 27, was paralyzed after a truck accident about seven years ago.

Many of the medical expenses associated with his care are not covered by First Transit's plan, she said.

First Transit took over operation of Red Apple Transit in December 2010, Strube said.

"We were stressed out and tired," she said. "They had us doing training at 9 p.m. after our shifts. They told us we were going to get the same (insurance) as we had."

City officials, in the mean time, are split on whether to take action.

"The bottom line is that we're not in a position to dictate to contractors what they pay and what benefits they offer," said Mayor Tommy Roberts.

Bob Campbell, assistant city manager, said he is continuing to monitor the situation.

"We continue to encourage First Transit and the United Transportation Union to resolve the issues," Roberts said. "We are concerned about this dispute."

Councilwoman Mary Fischer says the situation is unacceptable.

"The public transit system has never been what it should have been primarily due to poor management," Fischer said.

Many city officials were excited when the Red Apple Transit contract was awarded to First Transit because at the time there was an expectation that the company could provide good management and technical expertise, she said.

"I think First Transit has been an extraordinary disappointment from day one," Fischer said. "I would not be opposed to canceling the contract."

According to Fischer, one of the city's major challenges is that officials are required by law to accept the lowest bidder on a contract.

A low bid can come with cuts to salaries and benefits, she said.

But for Fischer, the bottom line is that city officials are poor negotiators.

"We're letting everybody walk all over us, and it didn't used to be that way," Fischer said.