Bobby DiPolo is confused. Scared, too.
After 17 years working on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, DiPolo, 55, isn’t sure what’s next. He’s one of about 500 employees — mostly toll collectors and fare-collection personnel — being laid off this week after believing their jobs were safe despite all the world’s uncertainty.
It was no secret that the turnpike planned to go cashless, but the change wasn’t supposed to happen until next year. So, as the nation focused on George Floyd’s murder, and while the latest coronavirus updates overshadowed a normally monumental primary election, the quiet but unanimous approval to lay off workers at a June 2 Turnpike Commission meeting came as a shock.
Toll worker, a bygone profession, joins many others swallowed by the insatiable appetite for the very latest. No more small talk and small change to break up monotonous drives on endless stretches. No more directions recited to weary travelers from the posts they workers have guarded.
“It’s scary because, as a 55-year-old, where do you go?” said DiPolo, a toll collector at the Valley Forge interchange. “Are they knocking down the doors in this environment to hire a 55-year-old man? It just seems to me like we’re in a bad spot.”
The update was swift, but the notice was short. Layoffs begin Thursday, according to the turnpike. It’s not what Commission CEO Mark Compton told workers earlier this year.
“I want you to know that our overall operation will not convert to AET [all-electronic tolling] until our planned date of October of 2021, as we assured previously; nor will it change our commitment that impacted employees can remain employed with the commission until at least January 2022,” Compton wrote in a March 16 letter to employees that was shared with The Inquirer.
The turnpike cited significant financial impacts and health concerns from the coronavirus as reasons for the accelerated timeline. As stay-at-home orders caused traffic to plummet, toll revenue fell by more than $100 million for the fiscal year that ended in May.
Other cost-cutting measures include a slash to capital spending, a hiring freeze, and delaying a July payment that helps support mass transit. The turnpike may not see January 2020 traffic levels again for four years, consultants told officials.
The turnpike started cashless tolling in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. DiPolo grew worried as other toll roads, like the New Jersey Turnpike and New York State Thruway, welcomed back cash collection. The Delaware River Port Authority restarted cash collection on the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry Bridges in early May.
But Pennsylvania Turnpike travelers without an E-ZPass were allowed to keep driving through. An invoice would be sent by mail.
“I don’t agree with them automating,” said toll collector Francis Torres Jr., 40, of Northeast Philadelphia. “I think a human touch still should exist somewhere in the world.”
What happened to the employees “just wasn’t right,” said State Sen. John Sabatina Jr. (D., Phila.), who along with other lawmakers called for the suspension of the “stealthy" decision in a June 5 letter to Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Nobody bothered to inform me, or anyone that I’m aware of, that this was a possibility,” said Sabatina, Democratic chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that we were led to believe that it wasn’t a possibility.”
The state’s Office of Administration (OA) is helping workers find other jobs, Wolf said in a response to their letter.
“OA is assisting by hosting web training seminars for employees where they can learn about commonwealth employment,” Wolf wrote Monday. “Additionally, OA will email specific job posting links for Driver’s License Center positions as the Department of Transportation increases their staffing.”
Employees will be given an opportunity for free training to become a contact tracer, said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger. It’s not clear how many positions will be made available or if pay will be comparable, said Bill Hamilton, an Eastern region official of the Teamsters union.
To aid in the transition, the turnpike is “under discussion to get priority placements into commonwealth vacancies for commission employees who are to be laid off.”
Workers, who earn between $20 and $25 an hour plus benefits, are poised to get a severance of $700 per year of service, extensions to health-care benefits, and a tuition-reimbursement program.
Sabatina and others sought answers during a nearly three-hour joint committee hearing Monday, pressing Compton, Chief Operating Officer Craig Shuey, and others.
The questions came like rapid fire, with remarks sometimes impassioned. State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) said pointedly: “You didn’t give a s— about these workers.”
“It’s been a very, very tough time for the organization, and I did not see this coming,” Compton testified. “I’m trying to keep the organization afloat.”
Union officials didn’t expect it either. Their members just ratified a contract.
Jock Rowe, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 77, representing about 600 turnpike employees, including fare collectors, maintenance, and office employees, "was stunned” after finding out the decision through a phone call June 2.
“I feel terrible about the whole thing,” Rowe said. “I’m sick about it.”
State Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Phila.) said the issue should go to the inspector general. Hamilton said the union plans to file an unfair labor practice charge.
“I’m concerned that they don’t have the best interest of the state at heart,” Hamilton said. “Why would they go do this? Passing midnight oil and not telling anybody, not discussing it, and keeping it completely secret until they released it to our members?”
Jeff Glackin, 67, of Northeast Philadelphia, will soon be job hunting. A toll collector for two years, he said he can’t afford to not work.
The steady paycheck was hard to beat, he said. And he’ll miss the friendly interaction with some of the customers.
“My financial woes are not the fault of the turnpike, but they were a possible fix,” Glackin said. “Now they’re not going to be.”