FARMINGTON — Managers for the company Farmington contracted to run its Red Apple Transit bus system -- First Transit Inc. -- submit local bus drivers' hours before employees file their timecards, according to a driver.

As a result, Red Apple bus driver Frank Miller said, he and other drivers are being shortchanged. He said the company sometimes shorts them as many as 12 hours in the paychecks they receive every two weeks.

When Miller approached one of his managers about the issue, she told him, "Well, we just guessed on your hours."

"We're pretty upset because that's our Christmas money," he said.

First Transit's Director of Corporate Communications Maurice Harris said he could not verify that the company was shortchanging its employees. He said he would not discuss personnel issues or speculate on matters about which he did not know the details.

He said he encourages drivers to contact their managers if they have any concerns "so that we can work in good faith to resolve the issue."

"Obviously we believe in compensating our employees fairly," he said.

Miller drove Red Apple buses before Farmington contracted the job to First Transit in early December 2010. And since First Transit won the bid, he said, drivers have had problems.

Charlotte Brown, a bus driver for Safe Ride, another service the city contracts through First Transit, said the company has been subtracting a dollar an hour from her paycheck since she began driving in April, 2012.

Each time Miller confronted the company about his and other driver's diminished paychecks, officials told him they'd be reimbursed in their next checks, he said. Nothing happened until he called the company's corporate headquarters on Dec. 13, he said.

As of this week, all but one of the 11 drivers have been reimbursed, he said.

First Transit also replaced the drivers' Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance with a limited benefit plan when it took over. Similar plans are often used by companies that employ minimum-wage workers and experience high turnover. It is also used by companies that employ seasonal labor. Some part-time drivers lost their insurance completely as a result.

There were also pay freezes. And there were pay cuts.

"There's a lot of stuff that goes on with First Transit that just doesn't seem right," he said.

Assistant City Manager Bob Campbell said he was unaware of the paycheck issues. He acknowledged drivers have complained about their hourly wages and health care benefits, but he said he hasn't received a complaint about the company in four or five months.

The city contracts First Transit to operate its bus system, he said. "How they get that accomplished is between them and their employees," he said.

Steve Moots, a former union spokesman and bus driver, said the city sold the drivers out when it contracted First Transit.

"They hired these guys. They didn't vet them," he said. "They (First Transit) go in with a low bid and they (take) the drivers' benefits, healthcare."

But the city did screen First Transit, Campbell said, and the evaluation committee found that of all the potential contracts, First Transit was the "lowest, qualified bidder."

Moots said drivers have "begged" the city to cancel its contract with First Transit. But the issue, he said, never makes it through council. He said it's always blocked.

"The city has an obligation to be frugal," he said, "but they also have an obligation to make sure (the drivers are) not abused. And we think it's abusive."

Mayor Tommy Roberts said he would have to know more about the circumstances between First Transit and its employees before he could consider terminating the contract.

He added that the drivers are employees of First Transit and not the city. He said the city expects its contractors to deal with its employees "fairly and in accordance with the law."

Talk of terminating the contract, he said, is premature.

Bonnie Morr said the city should run Red Apple itself. Morr is the international vice president for the bus department of SMART-United Transportation Union, which represents the drivers.

Many of the drivers are Farmington residents, Morr said, and the city should hire them as city employees.

"They're supposed to be representing them," she said.

First Transit's contract expires at the end of 2014.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.