SEAT plans to lay off 5 drivers

Impending layoffs have Southeast Area Transit district (SEAT) drivers up in arms and ready to speak their minds at this afternoon's Board of Director's meeting in Preston.

"We just want an answer about why they are laying off drivers," Jerry Pizunski, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1209, said.

Pizunski said five of the current 42 SEAT drivers received notices Feb. 12 informing them their positions would be terminated, effective March 7.

SEAT General Manager Ella Bowman said the changes won't affect service, and fares will remain the same.

The layoffs come a month after the unionized workers won an arbitration hearing increasing pay raises and insurance benefits.

"I think it's retaliation for the arbitration," Pizunski said.

Bowman said the union knew "what the effects of non-compromise would be."

"The decision was made based on the budget constraints that ultimately the new labor contract has caused," Bowman said. "It increased labor wages and created higher deductibles and overall health-care costs. Our budget couldn't contain it."

The new contract gives drivers a 2 percent wage increase retroactive to July; a 2.5 percent increase in fiscal year 2011; 3.5 percent in fiscal year 2012; and 4 percent in 2013. Deductible costs, which only the company contributes to, will increase to $1,000 for an employee with family insurance coverage and $500 for a single employee. All told, Bowman said the changes could increase costs 22 percent, just this year.

Bowman said the transit service generally receives an annual 6 percent budget increase from the state. With the state's own budgetary issues, that number dropped to 2.5 percent this fiscal year.

SEAT receives revenue from the nine towns the agency serves, but Bowman said raising their individual contributions would be counterproductive, considering the towns' budget struggles. The idea of raising fares was considered, she said, but that would hurt the transit service's patrons, especially because ridership continues to drop.

As worker wage increases hit in subsequent years, Bowman said the company could be making more "difficult decisions."

"At this point, it's five [layoffs], but we're only looking at getting through this fiscal year, and then we have to revise and go back to the drawing board for the next fiscal year," she said.

SEAT member towns are New London, Norwich, Groton, Stonington, East Lyme, Griswold, Montville, Waterford and Ledyard.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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