OAKLAND -- With BART and its unions facing off over partially approved labor contracts, Bay Area commuters may well wonder what fresh hell awaits them.
For the time being, anyway, BART workers are operating trains normally under the terms of two labor contracts that expired June 30. And union leaders have called it "premature" to talk about a third strike.
But the BART board appears likely Thursday to reject four-year contracts that Amalgamated Transit and Service Employee International members ratified Nov. 1.
The board last week sent its managers back to the negotiating table, citing an expensive paid leave provision they say was mistakenly included in the contract language.
"Given the cost, I have to put my concerns for the riders and the taxpayers ahead of the considerations of what the employees might do if the contracts are rejected," BART Vice President Joel Keller said.
Keller also said he will ask the unions Thursday to take the contracts back to their members -- sans the leave provision -- for another vote as quickly as possible.
Although SEIU Local 1021 representatives attended a meeting with BART managers in Oakland on Monday to discuss how the transit agency determined the costs of the family leave provision, no one "should interpret our participation or the meeting as a bargaining session," said union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro late on Tuesday.
The disputed clause provides workers up to six weeks of paid family time off in addition to vacation and sick leave to take care of a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner, or to bond with a new child.
BART estimates the perk could pile anywhere from $5.8 million to $44.2 million over four years -- depending on how many take it -- onto the cost of the $67 million package. ATU President Antonette Bryant estimated last week that it would cost only $1.4 million per year.
Without factoring the family leave price tag, the deal netted workers an 11.7 percent increase in wages and other benefits, after subtracting their increased contributions to pensions and health care.
The unions have refused to withdraw the family leave provision, and Bryant flatly rejected BART leaders' characterization of it as an error.
"The first thing people need to know is that this was not a mistake," said Bryant, speaking by telephone between meetings on the subject. "This was not a glitch. This provision was agreed on in July. The district was well aware that we were voting on it."
Not true, countered BART managers who say a temporary employee inadvertently included the rejected clause back in July.
Agency staffers found the disputed section during their document review Nov. 4 -- three days after the unions ratified the contracts -- and notified the unions.
The evidence points toward a sloppy mistake rather than a major district concession, Keller said.
If BART managers had agreed to what would be a very generous perk by almost any measure, why didn't union leaders play it up to their members before the vote? Keller asked.
Federal and state law mandates employers provide workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave for bonding with a new child or caring for a seriously ill spouse, parent or child.
But most employers require workers to first exhaust their unused vacation and sick leave.
Employees at public agencies and private companies whose employers participate in California's disability insurance program are eligible to receive 55 percent of their weekly pay or $1,067, whichever is less, for up to six weeks per year. The insurance premiums are withheld from their paychecks.
The disputed leave provision in the two BART contracts provides workers at no cost six weeks of full salary over a 12-month period in addition to their accrued vacation, sick or other leave.