(TNS) — A labor union that represents toll booth workers plans to take legal action against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission after it unanimously voted to lay off nearly 500 employees despite a contract that assured employment through January 2022, according to Teamsters International Vice President-East William Hamilton.

“This was nothing more than a premeditated hit,” Hamilton said during a public hearing with the state Senate Transportation and Labor & Industry committees on Monday. “The facts are we had an agreement. I sat in on the agreement when it was finalized.”

Republicans and Democrats on the committees hammered members of the state turnpike commission with criticism over their decision, some accusing the commission of using the pandemic as a justifiable reason to make the last-minute transition to all-electronic tolling.

Turnpike employee contracts were ratified on May 19, which guaranteed that people would keep employment, health benefits, and tuition assistance through January 2022, the year the commission was planning to transition to a cashless system.

However, the commission voted unanimously on June 2 to terminate 492 toll workers, but those workers will still receive unemployment, health benefits, and tuition assistance provided by the turnpike through 2022.

Hamilton said legal actions will include filing charges against the commission for unfair labor practices, which he said will show the commission did not negotiate in good faith.

“This is an unprecedented time for us with the organization, and had I seen that — absolutely I wish I would have not given those assurances,” said turnpike CEO Mark Compton.

Compton said they decided to make the layoffs based on financial strains and measures to protect the health and safety of toll workers from being exposed to COVID019. He said toll booth workers can interact with up to 1,200 motorists an hour in cities like Philadelphia.

Senate Labor & Industry Committee Chairwoman Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County, said based off of an email that was leaked from the turnpike commission that showed talking points for the June 2 meeting, this was a decision that was made prior to the meeting. Bartolotta, along with other members of the committees, were critical of the commission’s motives to go all-electronic and skeptical that coronavirus was the only factor.

“It seems to me that it was quite apparent, [from] the outside looking in, it was obvious that this was a perfect opportunity to go ahead and flip the switch to say ‘we're going to just be fully automated,’” Bartolotta said. “‘This is what we've been wanting to do. Let's just do it. Let's just do it now.’”

Members of the commission said the layoffs will save them $42 million this year and $65 million next year, which are net numbers after unemployment and health insurance is paid. Craig Shuey, the turnpike’s chief operating officer, said the turnpike could see up to $400 million in losses for fiscal year 2021 because fewer motorists have been using the toll road amid Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home orders and the state’s phased reopening of the economy.

Toll revenues have fallen by more than $100 million for the turnpike’s fiscal year that ended May 31, amounting to a 36.4 percent drop in revenue from the prior year. From a traffic standpoint, turnpike business declined by an unprecedented 46 percent. The last time the turnpike had as few customers as it did during this past fiscal year was 35 years ago.

Given the drop in traffic, especially commuter traffic, and the revenue reduction, Compton said the decision was made to go cashless to offset losses and improve safety.

Hamilton said the commission never discussed health and safety concerns with members of Teamsters, and they were not aware that layoffs were going to happen before they were announced on June 1. The General Assembly also was not aware of the decision, but Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramien said they had conversations with Wolf before announcing the layoffs.

Shuey said during these two years, employees who were laid off can still apply for open positions within the commission and will be considered as internal applicants when bidding on positions. He also said outside of the approximately 50 open positions they have now, they are imposing a hiring freeze. Those laid off can also now collect up to $25,000 in severance, which was originally capped at $14,000.

Sen. Lindsey Wiliams, D-Allegheny County, pressed Compton as to why they did not have a conversation with the Teamsters before laying off employees. Compton said that they don’t “telegraph” news of layoffs before an official decision.

Hamilton said the Teamsters have worked with other departments prior to mass layoffs.

Compton stated in his testimony the decision to layoff 492 employees was not one easily made. He said, “The fact is, the world has been forever changed by the pandemic, which has had a greater impact than anyone expected.”

©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.