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Published: Saturday, 1/1/2011

Turnpike employees agree to 3-year pact freezing pay, benefits

BEREA, Ohio -- Ohio Turnpike toll collectors and maintenance workers will start the new year with a new, three-year labor contract that maintains the status quo.

Teamsters Local 436's 636 members, including 169 part-time and 467 full-time employees, will receive no raises and no other significant changes to their working conditions under the pact that both the union and the Ohio Turnpike Commission approved in mid-December.

"It's basically a wage freeze for three years," L. George Distel, the turnpike's executive director, said. "It's a good deal for both us and the rank and file."

Mr. Distel noted that the union's previous contract had granted raises in each of three years at a time when many private-sector work forces got no such benefit.

"Now it's time for us to buckle up a little bit" and see how well the slumping northern Ohio economy recovers, he said.

First-year, full-time toll collectors will continue to be paid $19.50 an hour, while the top of the scale will remain $24.41 an hour plus longevity bonuses after five years. Hourly pay in the maintenance department ranges from $15.79 for an entry-level clerk to $30.41 for a division stores clerk with six years' experience, also plus longevity bonuses after five years.

Joseph Balog, turnpike commission chairman, noted that the majorities favoring the contract -- 289 to 113 among the full-time workers and 103 to 26 among the part-timers -- both were large enough that the contract would have passed even if all workers who sat out had cast 'no' votes. The full-time and part-time workers are represented by separate bargaining units within Local 436.

As recently as 2005, the local had more than 1,000 members. But the turnpike has sharply reduced its work force in recent years both through attrition and, last spring, through a toll collectors' retirement or resignation incentive offer while introducing E-ZPass electronic toll collection in October, 2009.

Forty-seven full-time toll-takers accepted $35,000 payments to leave turnpike employment, with the last 14 retiring by Nov. 30.

Seventy-nine part-time toll collectors accepted payments ranging between $5,000 and $15,000 as incentives to leave.

Twenty-two of the full-timers who resigned or retired had been turnpike employees more than 20 years; 12 had less than 10 years.

The incentive program cost the turnpike $2.52 million but achieved its goal, spokesman Lauren Hakos said.

Although it started off more slowly than expected, E-ZPass use by October roughly met turnpike officials' start-up forecast and was slowly rising.

During that month, 30.2 percent of all Class 1 vehicles -- passenger cars and light trucks -- used the electronic toll system and 75.3 percent of Class 5 commercial vehicles -- the class that includes 18-wheel tractor-trailers -- paid their tolls that way. And only 236 of the 15,697 triple-trailer rigs that entered the turnpike in October paid by other means.

Electronic toll payment on the turnpike rose to 32.1 percent for Class 1 and 75.7 percent in Class 5 during November, while total E-ZPass use surpassed 40 percent.

As is the case for many other toll roads or bridges that are part of the E-ZPass network, the Ohio Turnpike offers significant discounts for electronic-toll customers.

Toll increases of 46 percent for cars and light trucks, and ranging between 13 and 27 percent for trucks, that took effect last year applied only to fares paid with cash or credit cards. A toll increase scheduled for Jan. 1, 2012, will raise fares by roughly the same percentage for all vehicles, but the E-ZPass discounts will remain.

E-ZPass was installed on the turnpike as part of a $50 million overhaul of its toll-collection system, which also involved changing the basis of fare collection from vehicle weight to vehicle height and axle count.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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