Disruptions to public bus service may be on the horizon for Orange County, as labor negotiations have stalled between the region’s public transit agency and the union representing roughly 600 bus drivers the agency employs.
Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) officials – working with a $1.3 billion budget this fiscal year – say they’re now waiting for the union, Teamsters Local 952, to come back to the table.
Teamsters spokesperson Eric Jiminez didn’t respond to requests for comment as of Tuesday morning but in a text message on Monday night also confirmed that talks had stalled, following negotiation sessions that stretched from last Friday to Monday.
Drivers under Teamsters account for about 75% of OCTA’s bus line workforce. The union also represents drivers employed through an agency contractor, First Transit, but the labor dispute this week is between OCTA and its direct employees, said OCTA spokesperson Joel Zlotnik.
Breaks and rest periods appear to be major points of contention.
Zlotnik during a Tuesday phone interview said break periods at the agency are implemented the same way that “it’s done at public transit agencies throughout the state.”
“The way we implement meal and break and rest periods is the way we have been doing it since 2004,” Zlotnik said, adding that what the agency proposed during negotiations “makes no changes to the way that we have been operating.”
“We’re not taking anything away and we’re not changing the way we operate, in fact, we are offering additional break guarantees,” Zlotnik said.
Approximately 85% of the bus routes are currently allowed four scheduled breaks with a minimum of 15 minutes, Zlotnik said.
The remaining routes are currently allowed six breaks that are less than 15 minutes.
At the bargaining table, the agency offered an additional 15 minute-minimum break to drivers, Zlotnik said.
“At any time during a coach operator’s route — if he or she needs to stop and use the restroom — they can do that at any time. Under no circumstances are coach operators not allowed to stop and use the restroom if they need to,” Zlotnik said.
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 other Orange County cities.
In recent years, county transportation officials have reallocated bus service away from low ridership areas of the county and more toward core areas — though even the removal of some thought-to-be-underused bus lines saw protests from their riders, at the time.
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 parts of the county with low ridership and reallocated the resources to areas like Santa Ana.
“About 85% of our riders use OC Bus as their primary means of transport,” Zlotnik said. “Half of our riders have a household income of less than $50,000.”
Zlotnik said the agency has since seen a large volume in bus ridership with the advent of reduced-fare options like the “Youth Ride Free” program, which started in September and allows kids ages 6 through 18 to ride the county buses for free until February 2022.
This isn’t the first labor dispute to rock the public bus system – nor is it Teamsters’ first rodeo.
Toward the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, union leaders called out a wave of layoffs impacting roughly 300 bus drivers at the agency who were employed through First Transit. Employees hired directly by OCTA weren’t affected.
Zlotnik said OCTA hopes to resolve the dispute as soon as possible.
“We’re certain we can find a solution that will be a strong contract which both rewards our coach operators and is responsible to the taxpayers.”