Utah lawmakers are passing legislation that could jeopardize millions in federal transit funds

Utah lawmakers passed legislation last month that would strip some employees of the Utah Transit Authority of the right to collective bargaining, an action that potentially jeopardizes millions of dollars in future federal grants to the transit agency, transit union members say.

The measure, HB243, seeks to exclude certain UTA managers and supervisors from the state’s definition of a public transit worker, stripping them of their right to join or form a union under the text of the law. The agency itself took the matter to MP Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored the bill.

The bill would only affect new UTA managers and supervisors because it is not retroactive, said Utah Assistant Attorney General Tim Merrell, who served as legal counsel for UTA. According to Merrell, 1,642 UTA supervisors and managers are currently involved in unions.

Merrell explained the rationale behind the move, saying groups of executives could face a conflict of interest if they were able to bargain collectively because they would have access to confidential information.

But Teamsters Local 222, which represents 42 UTA Operations manager, argues that the bill contradicts a portion of the Federal Transit Act that requires protections for transit workers when a transit agency receives federal funding.

“This is just a direct attack on UTA employees,” said Spencer Hogue, Treasurer of Teamsters Local 222.

While pleading for its passage during a committee hearing on Feb. 2, Utah Attorney General Counsel David Wilkins, who also represents UTA, said the bill would bring Utah law into line with federal law, which disallows supervisors to organize in unions.

Although Wilkins did not cite any specific federal law, Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, said during a hearing that lawmakers appeared to be referring to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which updated federal law to exclude regulators from the federal definition of Employees who are allowed to participate in negotiation units.

However, when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, Utah did not update its own definition of such employees, Matthews said, and has not done so since.

Nearly 20 years after that law was passed, what later became the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 froze state protections of labor rights for transit workers, Matthews pointed out, arguing because Utah supervisors did not exempt supervisors from its original definition of workers who can bargain collectively Organizational rights of these workers remain protected by the guidelines of the law.

Wilkins disagreed with Matthew’s “Read About the Law,” claiming that the Urban Mass Transportation Act protects the labor rights of private companies that an agency can buy — and because UTA’s predecessor companies were privately owned and their supervisors non-union, the legislation would not risk UTA’s federal grant funds.

“That sounds like a dangerous chicken game that I don’t want to play,” Matthews said. “To me, that’s not good policy, and I don’t think it’s worth the legislature messing with.”

The Labor Department warns UTA ​​could lose future grants

In a Feb. 15 letter to the Utah House of Representatives, the director of the Department of Labor warned lawmakers that any legislation that “repeals or limits the collective bargaining rights of transit workers” would raise “serious concerns” with the federal agency’s ability to process grant applications for to certify UTA.

Without this evidence, no federal funding could be awarded to UTA in the future. In comparison, the agency received over $224 million in such funding in 2022, the letter said.

A UTA spokesman said that at the time of writing the letter, the Department of Labor was unaware that UTA currently has an agreement with the Teamsters bargaining unit representing 42 UTA operations managers, and the Department of Labor was not aware of the proposed Utah statute known would not be retrospective.

However, part of the Federal Transit Act requires continued protection of workers’ collective bargaining rights, which also cover future workers, said Tracy Olson, a Utah attorney with expertise in labor and transit law.

Olson also pointed to two court cases cited by the Department of Labor in its letter to the Legislature, both of which affirmed that states have the right to pass legislation such as HB243 — but that they then do not continue to have the privilege of receiving federal funding from those legislation violate the Federal Transit Act.

“What has happened in the past is that the unions have basically blocked the release of federal money because public transit companies are not following the required rules,” Olson said. “These are the conditions that Congress has made for you to receive these funds; If you don’t do those things, you won’t get those funds.”

The Department of Labor must certify that transit worker protections are in place — and meet federal requirements — before the Federal Transit Administration can release grant funds.

The Department of Labor can refuse to issue such a certificate if the legal circumstances in Utah are no longer consistent with federal law, a spokesman for the agency said said in an email. The agency’s Office of Labor-Management Standards is in contact with the state regarding the bill.

The Labor Department spokesman noted that should Gov. Spencer Cox sign the bill into law — and then UTA should file a federal grant application before certifying one — UTA and its unions have 15 days to raise concerns about the new legislation grant should be taken into account.

A spokesman for UTA said the agency “would never act in a manner that jeopardizes its federal funding,” adding that UTA “has communicated with its federal partners at the Federal Transit Administration through HB243 from the beginning.”

According to the UTA, the 15-day appeal period the Labor Department cites is “the beginning of the process,” and the federal agency could issue an interim statement of grant funds while UTA and transit unions are invited to negotiate.

If the parties cannot reach an agreement, a judge could set parameters UTA ​​must meet to receive federal funding “while UTA receives funding under an interim certification,” the UTA spokesman said in an email.

“I’m not familiar with the process they’re talking about,” Olson said. “This whole ‘after the fact’ thing; “Oh, that won’t affect it, they will release the money for the time being” – that is not what the law says. … Because the thing is, the cases have said: That’s only possible with certification. You must not avoid this.”

Utah lawmakers passed the law on February 16. As of Wednesday, Cox had not signed it. A spokesman for his office declined to comment on the law.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2023/03/10/utah-lawmakers-pass-bill-that/ Utah lawmakers are passing legislation that could jeopardize millions in federal transit funds

Justin Scaccy

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