A labor dispute between Orange County bus drivers and the region’s public transit agency may lead to a driver strike that Gov. Gavin Newsom could temporarily block.

Buses could stop running in certain parts of the county as soon as Feb. 15, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). 

Now OCTA officials are telling residents to start making alternate plans for transportation, in a news release shared with Voice of OC on Monday.

“OC Bus passengers should begin to plan for alternate ways to travel after the Orange County Transportation Authority was notified that Teamsters Local 952 might call a coach operators’ strike beginning as soon as Tuesday, Feb. 15,” reads the agency’s statement. 

The agency has also announced that – if a bus driver strike does occur – it plans to send a letter to Newsom requesting he block any strike pending a 7-day “cooling off period.” 

If Newsom determines “that a strike will significantly disrupt public transportation services,” he can appoint a board to investigate the labor dispute, said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter in a Tuesday email explaining the agency’s plan.

“The board of investigation will make a written report to the Governor within seven days of its formation,” Carpenter wrote. During this seven-day period of investigation, any strike is prohibited by law.” 

A request seeking comment from Newsom’s office went unreturned Tuesday.

It comes as Voice of OC reported last week on the “human dignity” issues that face some public bus drivers with narrow time windows for bathroom breaks at OCTA – issues voiced by their union, Teamsters Local 952, and by drivers themselves in written reports which Voice of OC reviewed. To read the original story and the bus drivers’ written reports, click here.

These issues, among others, have fueled the ongoing dispute, which stalled labor negotiations between OCTA and Teamsters, who represent roughly 600 drivers directly employed by the public agency. 

The 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.

“Meals and break periods are not in drivers’ contract. There is no provision, language, article or section in the contract that spells out breaks or meal periods. It spells out recovery time,” said Teamsters Secretary-Treasurer Eric Jimenez in an interview for the original story.

OCTA officials have said that bus drivers can take restroom breaks whenever they need to without reprimand. Union leaders don’t dispute this but say drivers are discouraged from doing so because the breaks eat away at their recovery time and can lead to rider complaints when behind schedule.

The county’s public bus system sees most of its boardings and ridership in the central part of the county, home to large populations of working-class and Latino households. 

For example, public buses get the most riders from Santa Ana, leading ahead of other Orange County cities.

In recent years, county transportation officials have reallocated bus service away from low ridership areas of the county and shifted it over to areas that use the bus more. 

Yet low ridership is also seen as the result of service cuts which can make public buses less reliable. 

A watershed public transit moment for the county came in 2016, known as the OC Bus 360° effort, in which OCTA eliminated or reduced bus service in mostly south county areas with low ridership and reallocated the resources to central county areas.

The regional transit authority and the drivers’ union are scheduled to meet again today “with the hope of resolving the contract negotiations and avoiding the potential interruption in bus service,” the agency wrote in its Monday news release.

“Public transit is critical for people to reach jobs, education, healthcare, grocery shopping and elsewhere. Approximately 85% of riders use OC Bus as their primary means of transportation and more than half of riders have a total household income of less than $50,000,” it added.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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