On Monday afternoon, labor leaders representing many of Orange County’s public bus drivers walked into what would have been their last meeting with the regional transit agency before drivers went on strike – disrupting transportation services across the county.
On Tuesday morning, officials at the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) announced that would not be the case.
Orange County residents can count on regular bus service this week after OCTA officials say they have reached a labor agreement with the drivers’ union following 21 straight hours of negotiating.
In a Tuesday phone interview, Teamsters Secretary-Treasurer Eric Jimenez declined to go “fully into detail” about the agreed labor contract terms which he said puts drivers and union leaders at ease.
The tentative agreement is “still subject to ratification by members of the coach operators’ union,” reads an OCTA news release on Tuesday morning.
That ratification vote is expected later this week, according to OCTA.
The tentative labor agreement comes after more than 40 meetings over the past year and stalled labor talks between the two – stemming from issues like meal and restroom breaks for drivers – brought about concerns that roughly 600 drivers represented by Teamsters Local 952 would go on strike.
It also comes after a protest outside OCTA’s headquarters in Santa Ana on Monday, where local elected officials like Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan and District Attorney Todd Spitzer showed support for drivers.
State mediators were also brought in to help the groups resolve the dispute, according to OCTA, which previously announced its intention to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to force drivers back to work if they went on strike.
Throughout the labor dispute, union leaders voiced “human dignity” issues facing drivers employed by OCTA with narrow time windows for rest.
Voice of OC reported on these issues, also laid out by drivers in their own written reports to OCTA.
“What I will tell you is after a year-and-a-half of bargaining, we believe that all the major concerns our members wanted to be addressed were addressed – that’s including personal rest time and wage increases,” Jimenez said.
Meanwhile, the labor agreement must also get final approval from the OCTA Board of Directors, according to the agency which says a special meeting is being scheduled for next week, after which the full details of the new agreement will be disclosed.
The transit authority’s existing contract with the union expired in April last year. If finalized, the new contract would run through April 2024.
The bus driver breaks issue revolves around existing labor regulations regarding public transit employees.
Industrial Welfare Commission Order No.9-2001, commonly referred to as Wage Order 9, exempts public transit companies from some of its requirements around breaks.
Wage Order 9 still requires solid meal and break time provisions for employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement – requirements which Teamsters leaders say aren’t being met as most drivers’ rest time comes from what’s called ‘Recovery Time.’
Recovery time, at OCTA, serves as padding of sorts – usually, a 15-minute grace period incorporated into a driver’s route to account for traffic delays or service disruptions and help the coach operator get back on schedule.
Or – if the driver made good timing on the route and has some recovery time left – the driver can theoretically use that time to take a break before starting their next route.
Union leaders said the system led to issues where drivers in some instances wetted themselves, urinated right outside the bus, or got bladder infections from holding urine.
Orange County’s taxpayer-funded public bus system is widely seen as a social service to the poor – mostly used by those in working class communities of color, like in Santa Ana.
Roughly 85% of riders use the county’s public buses as their primary means of transportation, according to OCTA.
“We went into negotiations yesterday in what would have been the last meeting prior to going on strike … and at 10 a.m. this morning reached an agreement that’s a fair deal for our members and to (OCTA),” Jimenez said.