Gov. Cox signs bill threatening millions in federal funds for UTA

The Department of Labor issued a letter Wednesday stating that objections over the bill by a local transit union have merit.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill into law Thursday that will strip collective bargaining rights from some Utah Transit Authority workers — and potentially jeopardize millions of dollars in future federal funding for the transit agency.

The bill, HB243, excludes certain UTA managers and supervisors from the state definition of a public transit employee, effectively removing their right to join or form a labor organization, according to its text.

The agency itself brought the issue forward to Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored it.

What is HB243?

While representing UTA, Utah assistant attorney general Tim Merrell has testified that groups of managerial UTA employees could have a conflict of interest if they were able to collectively bargain, since they have access to confidential information. That’s why lawmakers wanted to pass HB243.

But Teamsters Local 222 — which represents 42 UTA operations supervisors — argued that the bill defies a portion of the Federal Transit Act, which requires protections for transit employees if a transit agency receives federal funding.

In a letter sent to the Utah House of Representatives on Feb. 15, the director of the Department of Labor warned state legislators that any law that “removed or diminished any transit employees’ collective bargaining rights” would raise “serious concerns” with the federal agency’s ability to certify grant funding applications for UTA.

Without these certifications, federal grant funds could not be awarded to UTA in the future. By comparison, the agency was awarded over $224 million of such funds in 2022, the letter states.

When a lawmaker brought up the potential issue during a Feb. 2 hearing, Utah attorney general’s office lawyer David Wilkins — who was representing UTA — argued that he had a different “read on the law.”

A spokesperson for UTA said the agency “would never act in a way to endanger its federal funding,” adding that UTA “has been in communication with its federal partners at the Federal Transit Administration about HB243 since the start.”

Department of Labor moves to reconsider grant funding

During the federal grant certification process, transit agencies and their unions have 15 days to raise any concerns with a grant’s proposed terms and conditions.

The Department of Labor then considers such objections, and retains the right to withhold certification “where circumstances inconsistent with the statute so warrant” — until the circumstances have been resolved.

Teamsters Local 222 submitted objections in a letter to the Department of Labor on March 6, alleging that the then-unsigned Utah bill constituted “a change in legal or factual circumstances that may materially affect the rights or interests of employees.” The objections also stated that the union fears the bill will prevent FrontRunner and Bus Operations supervisors from obtaining representation.

On Wednesday, the Department of Labor determined that the union’s objections were sufficient — and stated in a letter that the department will issue a negotiation directive to UTA and its unions within the next 10 days.

UTA previously stated that the 15-day challenge period that the Labor Department cited is “the beginning of the process,” and said the federal agency could issue interim certification of grant funds while UTA and transit unions are ordered to negotiate.

“I’m not familiar with the process that they’re talking about,” Tracy Olson, a Utah attorney with expertise in labor and transit law, has said. “This whole ‘after the fact’; ‘Oh, it’s not going to affect it, they’re going to provisionally release the money’ — that’s not what the statute says.

The governor’s office declined to comment Thursday afternoon on the measure. About two hours later, Cox’s office announced that the legislation had been signed into law.