Public transit strike looms

LISBON – The Community Action Agency took action Monday to prepare for a strike by Community Action Rural Transit System workers, the county’s public transportation service.

Meeting in emergency session, the CAA board took several steps to prepare for the strike, scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Wednesday after the union representing CARTS workers issued a strike notice. All rides will be halted at 5 p.m. that day.

The CAA voted to hire replacement workers as soon as possible and contracted with Huffmaster Security to provide security at the CAA and CARTS garage.

“There will be some disruption for CARTS customers because there’s no way we can get replacement workers in place by Thursday,” said Carol Bretz, CAA executive director.

“We hope the public will be patient with us because we know a lot of people rely on CARTS.”

Should the strike occur, Bretz said their transportation priority will be the 35 people who use CARTS to get to and from their dialysis treatments. She said CARTS administrative staff and CAA employees will handle those transportation duties until replacement workers are hired.

CARTS has a fleet of about 29 vans and mini-buses it used to transport residents 800,000 miles last year. More than 70 percent of the people who use the service are elderly or disabled, and Bretz said CARTS is often the only transportation they have, whether it be to go grocery shopping or to doctor’s appointments.

Also impacted by the impending strike will be those who rely on CARTS to get to and from work under a special program begun several years ago.

“Come Thursday, if they are a regular customer but not going to dialysis, they are probably not going to have a ride,” Bretz said, adding as many of their regular riders as possible will be notified in advance by phone or email.

Those whose doctor’s appointment trips are covered by Medicaid will continue to be transported using CAA subcontractors already in place.

The Head Start program operated through the CAA would have been impacted by the strike since those drivers are also part of the union, but Head Start classes have ended for the year in the county except in East Palestine. Those parents will have to provide their own transportation.

The CAA operates CARTS, which is funded primarily with federal and state grants that total about $1 million annually, with fares generating $60,000. Its total budget, including revenue from outside contracts, is $1.6 million.

The 41 full- and part-time CARTS and Head Start drivers are represented by the United Steelworkers union, which Bretz said issued a strike notice last week after rejecting the CAA’s “last, best and final offer.”

The union could not be reached for comment.

She said the sides have reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract on every issue except salary. The CAA’s final offer is a combined $1 per hour pay raise over the life of the contract, or an 8.9 percent increase. The union is seeking a combined $1.50 per hour raise over three years, or 15 percent, “and in this environment that is simply something we cannot do,” Bretz said.

The workers received an hourly raise of 25 cents last year.

The costliest parts of CARTS operation are employee salaries and benefits, followed by gasoline. Bretz said they have no control over sudden or sustained increases in fuel prices that can wreak havoc on the CARTS budget already impacted by reduced state funding.

The starting hourly wage is $8.90 for CARTS drivers and $9.50 for dispatchers. Starting pay for Head Start drivers is $10.50 because they are required to obtain additional certification. Bretz said many of the drivers are retirees who use this job to supplement their retirement benefits.