King County transit workers are voting on a labor contract Wednesday that would freeze two years of cost-of-living adjustments, while also providing newly guaranteed shift breaks for bus drivers.
The vote comes as King County Metro Transit is in the throes of a financial dilemma, and is planning for deep service cuts that will begin in late September. Although the leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 has endorsed the proposal it is unclear if it will be approved by the rank and file.
"I don't have a good way to predict this; we've never contemplated taking a losing agreement before," union president Paul Bachtel said on Wednesday. Although Bachtel said he has heard from members who have voiced approval for the contract, he conceded, "I've got a lot of people saying, 'Absolutely not.' "
Members rejected a more generous contract package last December in a heavily lopsided vote. But that was before county voters defeated a ballot initiative in April that would have raised new revenue for Metro. Some opponents of the ballot measure complained about Metro's labor costs.
King County Executive Dow Constantine will not have any comment on the contract proposal until after the vote, a spokesperson for his office said on Wednesday. King County Council chair Larry Phillips did not return a request for comment.
Metro Transit also was not willing to discuss the specifics of the contract proposal, but spokesperson Rochelle Ogershok did acknowledge that the agency was looking for opportunities to save money. "Obviously Metro has emphasized cost containment and is doing everything it can to identify efficiencies," she said. "That has been an ongoing commitment."
The union expects to have the vote results tallied by early Thursday morning.
Under the contract, transit workers would not receive cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, for 2013 or 2014, but would receive one in November 2015. The wage adjustment is based on a local price index and varies depending on inflation. The last time transit workers received a COLA, or any type of pay-scale increase, was November 2012. It was about 3 percent.
The wage system for transit workers is tiered. A bus driver, for instance, would start out making $21.15 per hour and would top out at $30.21. A driver who works full-time for three consecutive years could reach the top of the pay scale in that amount of time, but many drivers start out working part-time, so it can take up to five or six years to reach the maximum base pay.
The breaks promised under the contract would be the first of their kind for King County Metro bus drivers. Currently, drivers work eight-hour shifts without lunch breaks. The window drivers typically have to use the bathroom is a short time period at the end of a bus line, before they turn around and reverse their route. But that time can be short or non-existent if a bus is running behind schedule.
The new contract would allow a 10-minute break on four- to five-hour shifts, a 15-minute break for eight-hour shifts, and two 15-minute breaks, or one 30-minute break, during a shift that runs longer than eight hours.
"You're entitled to take the break even if the bus is running late," Bachtel said. "This would be a major change; we've never had guaranteed breaks in our contract before."
Drivers do not want lunch breaks, he said, because they would rather go home after eight hours, rather than add an unpaid half-hour to their work days. Adding the breaks could also create complications with shift scheduling and finding parking spots for buses.
Transit operators are not allowed to strike. If the union members vote down the contract proposal, the next step would be an arbitration process. Bachtel fears that it would not go well for transit workers. This, he said, is among the reasons that he and 13 other members of the 16-member Local 587 executive board endorsed the agreement that is now up for a vote.
In addition to pay, both the union and the county have already identified issues they want to negotiate during arbitration.
The county wants more leeway to hire part-time transit operators, which could result in fewer full-time jobs. It is also looking to loosen rules for maintenance job classifications, and to eliminate or change a program that allows employees to convert worked overtime into time off. A worker's compensation subsidy would also be on the table. If an employee is hurt on the job, the subsidy kicks in on top of worker's compensation benefits to bring the amount of money the injured employee receives up to their base salary level.
The union's arbitration agenda includes seeking more vacation time for employees earlier in their careers. Bachtel said vacation benefits for transit workers are currently out of line with those provided to other county employees. Local 587 would also be pushing for fewer part-time operators. There are currently about 300 part-timers who, Bachtel said, are waiting for full-time jobs. And the union would also be leaning on the county to move part-time workers to the top-step of the pay-scale in less time than the six years it can currently take.
Union members defeated the county's contract offer last December in a vote of 2,122 to 505, according to a union news bulletin. With Metro's financial woes in mind, Bachtel is urging members to vote differently on Wednesday.
"Our best advice to them is to accept the offer this time," Bachtel said, "because it's a very difficult time for transit."