COLUMBUS — A state panel ruled today that Toledo Area Rapid Transit Authority drivers providing transportation for disabled and elderly riders were not engaged in an illegal strike when 19 called off sick on Monday.
TARTA maintained before the State Employment Relations Board that the call-offs constituted a strike in protest of recently instituted mandatory overtime, but union representatives countered that there was no organized effort.
The three-member board unanimously ruled that the incident was not a continuing job action and should instead be addressed as a possible unfair labor practice complaint by the transit authority.
But the board added that it is concerned it could happen again.
“Should similar activity reoccur, the Board will entertain a request for immediate action and remedy,” reads its order.
On Monday, 19 out of roughly 70 drivers assigned to paratransit services called off sick or offered other excuses. Four did so again on Tuesday. There were reportedly no problems today.
The dispute stems from TARTA’s call for drivers to put in more overtime because of increased demand for paratransit services. The authority has said it is trying to hire more drivers and acted to temporarily fill the void on Monday with a private company, TLC Ambulette.
The drivers are working on an extension of a contract that expired in 2011 and is currently tied up in litigation before the Ohio Supreme Court.
TARTA’s Columbus attorney, Jennifer Edwards, said after the ruling that she’s confident she could make the case that drivers should be penalized one or two days’ pay if the board later finds the action has reoccurred.
Geneva Mason, TARTA human services director, told the board it was clear something unusual was happening on Monday. Administrative staff had already heard rumbling that something was afoot, she said.
“It was a huge number of call-offs compared to what we normally have…,” Ms. Mason said. “As I started to listen to the messages, you could hear people stumble over their reasons for why they called off.”
But Jena Arduser, bus driver and president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 697, said the executive board was unaware of any planned job action and stressed that leadership would have done nothing to endanger its pending unfair labor practice grievance against the authority.
“In my opinion, I think the drivers just got sick,” she told the board. “I think they got tired. They’re overworked.”