Cars passing through the York tolls on the Maine Turnpike. Sun Journal photo by Steve Collins

The Maine Turnpike Authority is effectively doubling the pay of working tollbooth operators to keep the turnpike operating smoothly over the next two weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

Executive Director Peter Mills said Thursday that all workers will be paid for administrative leave for the next two weeks, and those who continue to work will also be paid their hourly rates. He said the policy is experimental.

“It may change at any time in response to conditions over which we have little control,” said Mills, whose sister is Gov. Janet Mills. “But we did the calculations, and if we pay people and bring in just the ones we need we will be better off.”

He said the policy is aimed at encouraging vulnerable workers to stay home.

“If you are old, like me,” said Mills, who will be 77 in June, “or if you have any immune system problems, then stay home and we will pay you for that, too.”

Those who do collect cash will wear gloves, sanitize their work stations regularly and keep their distance from drivers to try to reduce the risk of infection, Mills said.

Waiving tolls for cash-paying customers is not yet on the table, Mills said.

Frank Porter, a union representative for turnpike workers with MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, confirmed the authority notified both hourly workers and supervisors Thursday of the wage plan.

“It’s a good arrangement,” Porter said. “For the most part, everybody is happy and spirits are high about that decision. They are going to try to keep the turnpike going.”

While the distance between motorists and toll takers is less than the 6 feet recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are at least 4 feet from motorists and stand on platforms at least 2 to 3 feet above most drivers, Mills said.

“They have very good facial distance,” he said.

Mills said he visited all the turnpike tollbooth operators working Saturday and they were taking the recommended precautions.

Mills said several people have asked about the virus and steps the authority is taking to protect the public and workers.

“It isn’t the 6 feet that the CDC recommends, but it’s enough, and the duration of the contact is very short, often only between one or two seconds, and the CDC recognizes that as a factor,” Mills said.

About 100 of the turnpike authority’s 400 employees work in tollbooths at any given time, Mills said.

The turnpike’s main office in South Portland closed its public service window Thursday and will handle business with customers online or through the mail for now. Mills also said the headquarters workforce is being reduced significantly but noted work stations there are spread out.

Motorists who feel uncomfortable passing cash to tollbooth operators but who do not have an E-Z Pass will not be penalized if they use the E-Z pass lane and pay their tolls online or by mail – many motorist do this now, he said. License plates are photographed and invoices mailed to the vehicle’s registrant.

Mills said the decision to keep collecting tolls could change based on guidance from federal or state health officials.

Cash is still being accepted at tollbooths in New Hampshire. Massachusetts switched to all-electronic tolls in 2016; motorists without E-Z Pass transponders are billed by mail.

Traffic volume Monday and Tuesday on the Maine Turnpike had dipped by about 15 percent compared to the same two-day period last year, Mills said, but revenue had not decreased much because tolls from trucking kept pace.

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