Updated: 7:56 a.m.
With snow in the forecast for much of Minnesota this week, one place where it could be more disruptive than usual is St. Louis County. That’s because the drivers responsible for plowing the 3,000 miles of county roads went on strike Wednesday morning.
St. Louis County is Minnesota’s largest geographically. At more than 7,000 square miles, it’s the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
The county school district’s five schools draw their 1,900 students from much of that area, and most ride a bus each day. Superintendent Reggie Engebritson said when snow is in the forecast, she relies on county plow drivers to ensure the children safe passage.
On the rare days when she considers calling off school, Engebritson consults the drivers for critical on-the-ground intelligence about road conditions.
“We do have lead drivers in our district. They are geographically spread out across the district. And certainly the weather can be different at our most southern school, which is just north of Cloquet compared to our northern school, which is only about an hour from the Canadian border,” Engebritson said.
Unplowed roads are also a concern for Nick Arntz, co-owner of Sunrise Dairy, headquartered along a county road in Babbitt, Minn.
The company buys fresh milk from local farms and delivers it in glass bottles to customers around the region. Arntz says each of his four drivers puts 500 to 1,000 miles a week on the delivery vans.
“A lot of our routes are out in rural areas, where we’re driving 5 to 10 miles from house to house,” Arntz said. “We’re hoping we don’t run into any issues and they get it resolved before we have any big snow storms. But we’re staying positive.”
It’s not clear when the impasse might end. By a vote of 117 to 8 last Saturday, Teamsters Local 320 members rejected the county’s final contract offer. The main sticking point is how much sick time employees may accrue and cash out upon retirement.
The most senior plow drivers can save up to 1,900 hours of sick time, as they have for years. But in their 2013 contract, the union agreed that new employees would only get 1,150 hours. Later, two of the county’s other bargaining units negotiated a deal that allowed all of their members to get 1,500 hours of sick time, regardless of seniority.
Brian Aldes with the union said plow drivers simply want parity with other county employees.
“Our members want to be treated fairly and equitably. We’ve earned the time. It’s our time. When our members retire, those are the dollars that they use to pay their retiree medical premiums,” Aldes said.
St. Louis County spokesperson Dana Kazel said the union’s demands would place too big a burden on taxpayers.
“Basically the Teamsters are trying to get what two units negotiated without giving up the concessions that those units had to make. And the estimated cost — and this is the sticking point — just for the Teamster members, is $1.5 million.”
Kazel said that figure could balloon to $18 million if the county’s other employee bargaining units make the same demand.
With contract talks at a standstill and snow likely, Kazel said employees from other departments and supervisors who are qualified to drive plows will clear county roads. Teamsters said they would picket outside public works garages beginning at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
The strike does not affect the Minnesota Department of Transportation or city of Duluth drivers who plow state highways and city streets.