Friday, 19 April 2024

Union sets deadline for strike if transit employee contract negotiations aren't settled

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – The union representing local transit workers has set an Aug. 26 deadline for settling contract negotiations with the organization that holds the Lake Transit Authority contract, otherwise a strike could ensue.


On Aug. 12, Teamsters Local 624, based on Santa Rosa, and representatives from Washington-based Paratransit Services met for another round of negotiations, which both sides said had yielded some new offers.


Christie Scheffer, Paratransit Services' chief operating officer, said she had asked for the additional session to make sure everyone was on the same page. She termed the negotiations positive, productive and respectful.


The nonprofit transit organization made a best and final offer that included a 1-percent wage increase, with the ability to reopen wage negotiations at the end of the first and second years of the contracts, she said.


Scheffer said it was an offer they considered extremely fair, especially in light of cuts to transit funding across the state, including Lake County.


“We got a lot closer although we did not reach an agreement,” said union representative Ralph Miranda.


Then, in a Sunday afternoon vote of a Teamsters committee, Miranda said they overwhelmingly rejected Paratransit Services' offer.


He's since notified the company and asked for another bargaining session.


The union has set the Aug. 26 deadline for coming to an agreement or else it will pursue strike action, he said.


Teamsters Local 624 represents 35 employees, of which about 20 are full-time, Miranda said. They include drivers, dispatchers and mechanics.


Miranda said negotiations have been going on for about three months. More recently, a federal mediator has been assisting in the talks.


The issues with the latest offer centered on health and welfare issues, said Miranda.


In the former contract – which Miranda said Paratransit inherited from its predecessor, Laidlaw – the company and full-time employees split the costs of health insurance, which penciled out to about $150 per employee. That amount covers not just the employee but their entire family, although the plan has no dental or vision components.


In the latest negotiations, Miranda said Paratransit wanted employees to pick up the entire health care cost, which Miranda said was a big reason for rejecting the offer.


He said they were willing to consider keeping the current medical plan if they could reopen negotiations each year on any proposed changes.


While the union appreciated a wage increase offer, he said it only amounted to about 10 cents per hour, which doesn't cover the 20 cents per hour of impact expected from picking up additional health care costs.


A third area of concern was Paratransit's desire to freeze longevity pay, which Miranda said is a step increase after five years of service, with a cap at 10 years.


Even though the negotiations haven't reached impasse, union employees already have been notifying riders to make arrangements if a strike ensues, Miranda said. Those notifications began about two weeks ago.


Short of meeting the union's demands, a strike is inevitable, Miranda said.


Scheffer called it “a very challenging time for everyone.”


There is a concern that a strike could actually take place, Scheffer said. “There's always a concern when you reach this point in negotiations, when there's still unresolved economic items on the table.”


Paratransit Services' contract rate was reduced 3.1 percent due to a dropping consumer price index. While many transit agencies would ask employees to take wage reductions, Scheffer said they didn't do that.


As a result of the previous contract that was agreed to between Laidlaw and the Teamsters, Scheffer said employees' wages increased 32.49 percent over three years, while the CPI was only 3 percent during that time.


Employees also received very good health increases over that time, said Scheffer.


Miranda said Teamsters Local 624 also has contracts with transit companies in Santa Rosa and Mendocino County. Compared to those areas, Lake County's wages are much lower, with a driver in Lake County starting as low as $9 per hour compared to $15 per hour in Mendocino and $15 in Santa Rosa for paratransit drivers.


County transit workers didn't have a union before the Teamsters began representing them in 2007, said Miranda.


Mark Wall, general manager of Lake Transit, said Paratransit has done an excellent job in its time working in the county. He said he believes employees are much happier working under the group than they were before.


The contract negotiations are set against a backdrop of transit authority budget challenges and aging equipment. Wall said half of the transit authority's vehicles are beyond their life expectancy, and ridership – as well as fair revenue – is down.


Wall said he had been notified there was a possibility of a strike.


“We're all hopeful that this all gets worked out, because we don't want to see services disrupted,” he said.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf.

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