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Phoenix Warns of Bus Strike; $6.2 million Worth of Unpaid Employee Sick Leave is Part of Ongoing Negotiations

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Phoenix sounded the alarms this week to prepare the public for a possible bus strike as talks continue with one of the transit unions.

Negotiations are expected to continue throughout the day with the union representing employees who fuel and clean the buses,Teamsters Local Union No. 104. Their contract, as of this afternoon, is set to expire on Sunday at midnight.

Officials for the two other unions representing transit employees say things are going well. Just yesterday, the bus mechanics union,International Union of Operating Engineers Local 428, agreed to extend its contract with Veolia Transportation until August 15. The bus operators union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1433, has extended its contract until September 30.

But if one union strikes, the others probably will join them. The Web site for the bus-operators' union states: "We do not know whether or not the Teamsters will walk on Monday. What we do know is that if they do, we WILL honor their strike, period!"

"We're hoping things work out," said Raul Garcia, business manager for the Operating Engineers' shop. "We don't want a strike."

Veolia Transportation, which has been running city buses since the 1970s, snagged a new five-year contract to operate them that started on July 1. It runs 33 of the Valley's 99 bus routes.

Among the issues being hashed out is how the company is going to deal with about $6.2 million worth of sick leave employees have banked over the years. Some workers who have been with the company for one or two decades have each amassed as much as $28,000 worth of sick days.

For nearly a decade, Veolia's allowed employees who retired or left the company to cash out all the sick days as they had on the books. Veolia paid more than $681,000 to employees between 2000 and 2009.

Well, really, the City of Phoenix paid more than $681,000 to Veolia employees. Under its old city-bus contract, Veolia just managed bus service and passed along operating costs to the city. Under the new contract that started on July 1, Veolia is on the hook for those expenses.

As for non-union folks, they had to eat most of their sick leave, which was worth about $1.5 million. Regardless of how many days they saved up, this group can only carry over half of their sick time, up to 35 days.

That's because Veolia executives shut down the old company -- Veolia Phoenix -- and opened a new company -- Veolia Transportation Services. If non-union workers wanted "new Veolia" to hire them, they had to sign a paper agreeing to "waive any and all claims" for their unpaid sick time against "old Veolia" (since it no longer existed).

Veolia sent the letter to non-union employees on June 10, about a month after Phoenix agreed to pay Veolia $2 million to "settle the accumulated value of employee sick leave on the books."

Phoenix officials said they gave the money to Veolia as part of a settlement to close out the old city-bus contract. The money didn't come with directions on how to use it.

"It is Veolia's responsibility to settle it fairly with their employees," said Assistant City Manager Ed Zuercher.

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