California Watch photo by Austin FastPassengers wait at an AC Transit stop Thursday evening in Berkeley.
AC Transit officials call it a sick-out; the union calls it a push-out. It's a contentious labor dispute where neither party agrees on much. But what's clear is that for some of the 236,000 daily riders of the East Bay bus system, there are longer waits and even no-shows.
Albany resident Valeriya Voronova said she was late to pick up her 9-year-old son from summer school in Berkeley on Tuesday because she had to wait 35 minutes – twice as long as usual – for the bus.
"It's hard to pick him up" with such delays, said Voronova, who left twice as early Thursday to make sure she wouldn't leave her son waiting. If the delays continue, she said she will have to find a way to share the car her husband takes to work.
For many AC Transit riders, the bus is the only way they get from point A to point B every day.
Between 190 and 250 of the union's 1,750 employees have called in sick each day this week, causing delays of about 30 to 45 minutes on some of AC Transit's 110 bus lines, said Sam Singer, spokesman for the district.
The absences are "rolling," meaning different people are calling in sick each day, and represent about 20 percent of the district's daily driver count, Singer said. Typically, fewer than 100 workers call in sick. AC Transit employees receive 12 paid sick days a year, and salaries average $60,000 to $70,000, he said.
'This is an organized sick-out by the union,' Singer said. 'The majority of (riders) are working-class people. They are students, the elderly and the disabled. They have to get around, and they depend upon those drivers. The union is really slapping the riders and the taxpayers in the face.'
Drivers began calling in sick after a new contract, adopted by the district's board of directors when labor negotiations broke down, went into effect Sunday with new policies for overtime, health care and pensions.
The district says the changes will shave $15.7 million off a projected $56 million deficit. It's issued press releases criticizing absent drivers for "refusing to honor their public duties." The union contends drivers are missing work because scheduling changes in the new contract are impossible to follow.
"I believe the people who are not here can't be here by what has been imposed on them," said Claudia Hudson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192. "We are working. We are not protesting. We are doing the best we can with what AC Transit has provided us in short notice."
Singer said workers' claims that they are being forced to work long hours and drive unfamiliar routes are unfounded.
The union has filed court declarations from four of its members who say the new schedule has presented hardships for them and their families. One driver said she and her husband, also a driver, are sometimes scheduled at the same time. "I don't know who will take care of our children and get them ready for school," she said.
Both parties blame each other for the scheduling changes and service disruptions to riders. An Alameda Superior Court judge ordered arbitration for the district and union to resolve the dispute. Singer said AC Transit will likely challenge the court's decision.