Kassidy McGuire, left, made the signs that she and her mom, a KVCAP driver, Susan McGuire are holding during a picket in support of KVCAP drivers’ union contract negotiations Thursday at Buker Community Center in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Three times on Thursday, Augusta-based drivers for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program picketed at the organization’s headquarters to urge it to settle a fair contract with them.

Driver Audrey Britt during a picket Thursday in support of Kennebec Valley Community Action Program drivers’ union contract negotiations at Buker Community Center in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

About a year ago, the Augusta-based drivers for KVCAP’s transportation program organized a union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S89. The drivers are still waiting for their first contract to be completed.

Union members say KVCAP officials are dragging their feet and haven’t agreed to the small wage increase the drivers are seeking. They say drivers in central Maine, on average, earn $16.70 an hour, while they are being paid only $14.10 an hour.

The nonprofit provides services for residents in Kennebec and Somerset counties that are designed to help people become economically and socially self-sufficient. Among the services KVCAP offers is homeownership education, heating assistance, home repair and weatherization services, and parenting classes.

It is also a regional transportation corporation that operates the Kennebec Explorer bus service for Augusta, Waterville and nearby communities. It also provides rides in paratransit vans and buses as well as other vehicles for eligible clients to doctors offices, hospitals, adult day care programs and behavioral health facilities, among other locations.

For Audrey Britt, it’s a matter of fairness. She has a commercial driver’s license and has driven for KVCAP for about five and a half years.

“I like driving,” said Britt, who has been driving for 18 years. “I really love all my customers. They’re very good to us, and they need the service. I’ve built up a good rapport with them.”

Britt, who is from Sidney, said she took a pay cut to drive locally.

Even as Britt keeps up with the required paperwork and navigates daily traffic, which she said has tripled in the last three years and keeps her client safe, she wants a bigger say in the workplace.

Suzanne Walsh, KVCAP’s chief executive officer, said this is the first time the organization has dealt with a union.

“We’ve never had any experience with unions, and we’re a nonprofit, so it’s just a whole different world for us,” she said. “Since it’s a new contract, what we understand is that it does take a long time to put all the pieces together.”

Walsh said KVCAP and the union have been meeting regularly since May and a lot of progress has been made, but wages are a sticking point.

“Most of our funding is from federal and state sources and we’re nonprofit,” she said, “so we don’t have much flexibility in what we spend from year to year.”

Since 2017, Walsh said KVCAP has been working with all of its direct services staff, including drivers, to give them increases beyond merit increases to keep pace with the increasing state minimum wage.

“In that three-year period of time, the drivers in Augusta have received a 24% increase in their wages,” Walsh said. “With our transportation program, we’ve been running in a deficit for the past six years. Because if the way our funding is structured, there is not enough of it.”

She said the wage information the union provided wasn’t necessarily comparable to the type of transportation KVCAP provides, and in surveying similar organizations, found its wages are among the highest.

KVCAP has budgeted for the wage increase that was promised, as well as for a mid-year increase, but to go beyond that would put the agency’s services at risk. The increase hasn’t been paid because the contract is not yet complete, Walsh said.

Despite those losses, she said, the organization gave increases to its employees because it values its employees and wants them to continue working for KVCAP.

But Susan McGuire, who has been driving for KVCAP for two and a half years and likes her job, said the drivers are not being treated fairly.

“Anything is better than what we have right now. We should be in a comparable rate (with drivers in) central Maine …,” McGuire said. “I don’t want to feel like, you know, I’m the grunt.”

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