Plans for continued contract talks stave off OC bus strike – Orange County Register

In a promising sign that Orange County public bus service will resume this week, transit officials and union officials are planning the possibility of multi-day contract negotiations.

Mechanics and other maintenance workers at the Orange County Department of Transportation planned to go on strike and picket lines at 12:01 a.m. Monday. But late Sunday night, at the request of the governor’s office, they agreed to return to the negotiating table in hopes of reaching agreements on key issues that have stalled talks for the past few weeks.

The walkout would have suspended bus service across the county because maintenance workers are the ones who keep vehicles running “safely and efficiently,” OCTA officials said.

But with promises of continued talks, OC buses were on their usual routes Monday morning.

At a stop at Grand Avenue and 17th Street in Santa Ana, Apricot Burke got off the southbound bus around 9:30 a.m. and began walking down Grand, as she does every weekday morning. Burke, who does not have a driver’s license, takes Route 59 daily from her home in Santa Ana to work in Tustin at a middle school after-school program.

Ahead of the news that bus service would resume Monday morning, she was preparing for a strike and planning to take an Uber or Lyft to work in the morning, she said, adding that the option would be “very expensive for me.”

As a daily commuter, she said she’ll keep a close eye out for OC Bus service updates during the week.

“I have to,” she said. “I ride the bus every day.”

OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter acknowledged that the night’s announcement of an averted strike may have confused drivers and workers, and he warned Monday of potential delays.

For Martin Machado, who works in the Santa Ana Unified School District’s adult transition program, the bus takes students to various work locations during the day, he said.

Without this transportation option, “we couldn’t operate,” he said as he boarded the 560 Bravo bus with a trio of students. “We would get stuck in a classroom.”

As of Monday morning, OCTA and union officials were working to schedule further negotiation sessions for this week.

Carpenter said OCTA officials have identified a number of possible dates they could meet — including as early as Tuesday — though they “hope it doesn’t take several days” to reach an agreement, he said.

Negotiations have been ongoing since May and a state mediator was brought in last month to help the talks progress. The workers’ current contract expired in September.

Union officials have cited a handful of issues on which the parties have faltered, including pension increases for workers and wage and healthcare cost differentials compared to other departments.

Before agreeing to return to the negotiating table, Eric Jimenez, the union’s secretary and treasurer, said workers had no choice but to strike after OCTA officials refused to back down after saying a “last, best and final offer” on key issues at the end of September, which the workers unanimously rejected. He said that under the agency’s bid, employees would see an increase in monthly healthcare costs and that workers had not received a pension increase in a decade.

Carpenter claimed that when designing the maintenance workers’ specific health insurance plan, “the cost and design, including premiums, co-payments and benefits, are entirely within the control of Teamster leadership.”

He added that the pension contributions currently offered by the agency go into two separate pension funds. OCTA pays 26.4% of workers’ wages to the Orange County Employees Retirement System and $1.30 per hour an employee works to the Western Conference of Teamsters’ pension fund, Carpenter said.

“All of these issues are best discussed during negotiations and we stand ready to work with the union to ensure employees have the lowest possible healthcare costs and great opportunities to save for retirement,” he said. “As we did with the drivers earlier this year, we are negotiating in good faith to reach an agreement.”

OCTA officials sent a letter Saturday urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene to prevent a strike by demanding a “cooling off period” while an investigation into the industrial dispute takes place. Although he did not take that formal step, the governor’s office called both sides on Sunday to ask them to talk further.

“We just remain confident that OCTA will come to this table and productively discuss the key issues so that we can deliver a fair and equitable settlement to our members as quickly as possible,” said Margie Stites, spokeswoman for Local 952.

Watch for updates on the service. Plans for continued contract talks stave off OC bus strike – Orange County Register

Dais Johnston

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