Working in a metal booth in the middle of a highway — while traffic zooms by and choking exhaust fumes fill the air — may not sound like an ideal job to most people.
But the unions representing toll collectors on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike are fighting to protect those jobs as technology cuts into the work force and plans for privatization become more intense.
Union leaders are worried that toll takers may disappear altogether unless they are able to stop the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the parkway and turnpike’s operating agency, from privatizing the fare-collection system on both roads.
“It’s just a shame what is being done. They’re in constant fear of losing their jobs,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents the turnpike’s toll collectors.
The turnpike authority has decided to accept bids for a private company to oversee toll collection, including the human toll takers and the automated E-ZPass system. The authority believes it may save millions of dollars by making the switch. The same issue was debated in 2011, but privatization was avoided then because the unions agreed to accept salary cuts and other concessions.
“At the time, our toll collectors were making about $65,000 a year. That was 50 percent higher than the median salary at other tolling agencies,” said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the turnpike authority.
With salary cuts of about 25 percent, the full-time toll collectors saw their pay reduced to $49,500 annually.
Feeney also said the union contracts once were filled with perquisites and expenses that the state comptroller had criticized, including a “separation bonus” that paid toll collectors $500 for each year they had worked at the time of their retirement.
“The contracts were also loaded with work rules that made it impossible for toll managers to run their operations efficiently,” Feeney said. “For example, if a toll collector at Interchange 8A called out sick, the managers were not allowed to move an available toll collector from Interchange 9 to cover the shift. Instead, they had to bring in somebody on overtime.”
The unions, though, claim they have sacrificed enough. They have been staging protests at the turnpike authority’s headquarters in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, to underscore what they say is “the plight of these workers.”
“Workers on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway have agreed to more than $30 million in concessions to keep their jobs. Yet, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority has been unmoved by the ongoing sacrifice of its workers and continues its pursuit to privatize turnpike and parkway jobs at the expense of middle-class families,” the New Jersey AFL-CIO said in a statement. “The turnpike authority’s incessant demand for concessions with the threat of privatization is clearly an attack on working families that we must strongly oppose.”
Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., also accused the authority of trying to squeeze the toll collectors and their salaries even more. He predicted that the parkway and turnpike could wind up with nothing but low-paid, low-skilled toll takers if the jobs are privatized.
“Any time you privatize, I think the people in the state of New Jersey must be concerned about the quality of the jobs,” said Shearon, whose international union represents the turnpike and parkway’s toll collectors and maintenance workers.
Feeney, however, said a governor’s task force already has studied the issue and concluded that toll collection is an area where outsourcing the jobs “could produce significant savings without compromising quality in any way.”
Shearon argued that publicly employed toll collectors could do the job cheaper, saving the turnpike authority even more money than if it privatized the jobs.
“We believe that we are, in fact, doing the jobs cheaper than a private company,” Shearon said.
In recent years, the toll collector workforce has been shrinking. As more full-time toll takers have retired, they have been replaced by part-timers earning $12 per hour. Currently, there are 200 toll collectors on the turnpike and 136 on the parkway. The total work force once numbered about 1,000 toll collectors for both roads.
Toll collectors formerly were a ubiquitous part of highways across the country. In those days, drivers had to stop at the toll booths and hand over the fare to human collectors.
But the advent of the E-ZPass automated toll system 20 years ago has all but replaced the human toll collectors. E-ZPass currently accounts for more than 80 percent of the toll-paying traffic on the turnpike and 78 percent on the parkway. On the Atlantic City Expressway, New Jersey’s other major toll road, more than 70 percent of the motorists use E-ZPass.
In August, the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operator, awarded a $3.7 million contract to a private company to run the highway’s manual toll-collection system through November 2014. The move is expected to save the expressway about $7.5 million, because it has been relieved of the cost of salaries and benefits for toll collectors.
Debate continues about having a completely automated toll system on the expressway, parkway and turnpike. In the meantime, the human toll collectors continue to survive because some motorists embrace the old-fashioned system of manually paying their fares.
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