New employees on Friday will begin driving Lake County transit buses that have been crippled for two weeks by an acrimonious strike over wages.
"By the 16th, they will have enough replacement workers to restore about 60 percent of the schedules," said Lake Transit Authority General Manager Mark Wall. All routes will be restored to some degree by Aug. 26 and services will be back to normal by Sept. 3, said Christie Scheffer, chief operating officer of Washington-based Paratransit Services, which operates the buses for the transit authority.
Currently, just four routes, manned by managers and strikebreaking employees, are being minimally operated, leaving many Lake County residents who cannot drive to their own devices.
"I just picked up a hitchhiker in Lakeport and dropped him off in Kelseyville," Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said Tuesday. Inconvenience rendered the man unsympathetic to the striking transit workers, he said.
Lake Transit Authority provides about 400,000, one-way passenger trips per year, officials said. Many passengers are just trying to get to a grocery store, Wall said.
Union representatives of the striking transit workers say they doubt the bus schedules will be on track as quickly as management contends.
"They're weeks away from having full service," said Mark Gleason, secretary of Teamsters Local 665.
Resumption of services and other strike-related issues — including complaints about strike tactics — are scheduled to be discussed Wednesday morning at the Lake Transit Authority meeting in Lakeport.
The strike, which began July 29, has been less than civil.
Strikers have used bullhorns and loudspeakers blasting rock 'n'roll music to disrupt work at the transit hub in Lakeport and have followed and intimidated employees who crossed the picket line, Scheffer said. She said she's called police and reported harassment allegations to the National Labor Relations Board.
"They blocked people from getting on buses and blocked buses with their vehicles," she said.
Union negotiator Ralph Miranda said he believes people are confusing "ambulatory" picketing - whereby picketers follow buses from stop to stop to protest — with harassment. There's also shouting, but that's part of picketing and he does not believe there have been threats made against the strikebreaking workers.
The strike began after a majority of the 35 Lake transit workers — who earn roughly $11.50 an hour on average — voted to reject a 2.2 percent payraise.
The striking employees are asking for a 2.4 percent increase and, more importantly, restoration of a seniority-based step increase that was suspended in 2010 because the economy was in poor shape, said Ralph Miranda, president of Local 665.
He said Lake transit workers don't expect a huge raise, but they don't think it's fair to earn so much less than people who do the job elsewhere. Mendocino County transit workers earn closer to $15 an hour on average, Miranda said.
They also receive generous medical benefits, while Lake County transit workers must pay $200 a month for coverage, which many, especially part-time employees, cannot afford, he said.
But the pay apparently is considered good by Lake County standards.
"We were shocked at the quality and large amount of applicants" for the jobs, Scheffer said.
The new employees will be able to keep their jobs when the strike ends, she said.
The striking employees will be tapped to fill any jobs that remain open, Scheffer said.