BURLINGTON -- About 70 bus drivers in Vermont's largest county went on strike Monday leaving about 9,500 people in greater Burlington who ride the buses every day scrambling.
Most, however, appeared to find workable alternatives, although there was a slight increase in absenteeism at Burlington schools.
At midmorning Monday, the normally busy main bus stop at Church and Cherry streets was largely empty with about 20 drivers from the Chittenden County Transportation Agency walking a picket line a few feet away.
When people arrived looking for a ride, the drivers would tell them none were coming, said driver Derek Lorrain, who was among the Monday morning picketers.
"We feel terrible for the people," Lorrain said. "We're here to help people and we're doing this because we need to do this at this time. The passengers mean a lot to us, we love to bring our passengers where they need to go."
Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont's largest private employer, said it had received no reports of employees having trouble getting to work.
Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne Collins said while there was a slight increase in absenteeism and tardiness on Monday, the increase was most noticeable among students who receive free and reduced priced lunches. On Friday, about 54 percent of the district's absences were free and reduced lunch students. On Monday the figure was 64 percent.
She called the statistics "concerning and not a surprise."
Separate routes that carry passengers between Montpelier and Burlington and along the Vermont Route 116 corridor between Middlebury and Burlington were unaffected by the strike.
Lorrain said the strike came after 10 months of negotiations that made no progress until a 19-hour negotiation session that began March 8 that led to a tentative agreement that was rejected by the drivers, leading to Monday's strike.
The drivers say the main issues separating the two sides are working conditions, the length of split-shifts and discipline, which Lorrain described as the major stumbling block. The drivers also rejected a call by the CCTA to submit to binding arbitration.
In a statement issued early Monday, CCTA General Manager Bill Watterson said it was up to the union to restore negotiations that could lead to an end of the strike.
"CCTA's last proposal to the Union was exceedingly fair, reasonable and respectful, including generous pay increases and flexibility in work rules in response to issues raised by the Union in negotiations," Watterson said. "Unfortunately, the union was not satisfied.
Separately, Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles on Monday urged the two sides to reach a resolution and keep the needs of the riders in mind.
Michelle Heublein, of Burlington, was wearing an "I (heart) my bus drivers" sticker, said she'd been riding the buses her entire life. Even though she had to cancel a Monday appointment because she didn't have transportation, she still supports the drivers.
"They're going through a lot. I believe they deserve a fair contract," Heublein said.
Lauren Charette, also of Burlington, was wearing a sticker supporting the drivers as she watched them picket. She said she uses the buses for transportation nearly every day and supports the drivers' goal of achieving better working conditions, but not at her expense.
"I want them to get back on the job," Charette said.