Qwest and union representatives resumed negotiations today as both sides try to reach a new contract for nearly 25,000 employees.

Share story

Qwest and union representatives resumed negotiations today as both sides try to reach a new contract for nearly 25,000 employees.

“We are very close to an agreement,” said Brenda Roberts, president of Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 7800, which represents 1,900 of the 3,000 Qwest employees in Washington state. “We still have a few issues that have to be resolved.”

Negotiations started up again early this morning with union representatives reporting at 11 a.m. that they remained at the bargaining table, inching closer to a tentative contract.

Roberts said another update is expected at 3 p.m. Seattle time. “We are feeling pretty confident that they’ll have a tentative (contract) by then,” she said.

If an agreement is reached, the union would then inform the membership. Local union officers would fly to Denver, where Qwest is based, to get an explanation of contract terms. The entire membership would then vote on it by mail. The process could take up to 45 days, Roberts said..

Hoping to avoid a strike, the employees across a 13-state region have remained on the job more than two days after their contract with the telephone-service provider expired.

“We know from the company’s previous behavior how things can change at any time. We are prepared to walk out on short notice,” Roberts said earlier yesterday.

The resumption in talks comes after the CWA characterized them early yesterday as “stalled.” Key unresolved issues included health care and wages. Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs declined to comment on the specifics of negotiations. “We are continuing to work toward a new agreement,” he said.

Employees have been growing impatient, Dale Feller of CWA Local 7777 said. “They want a fair contract,” he said.

The union’s contract with Qwest expired at midnight Saturday, but the two sides agreed to continue to talk.

The union’s executive board has authorized the president to set a strike date if merited, which could happen at any time, CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson said.

The teams negotiated for at least 20 hours through Saturday and returned for several additional hours Sunday before recessing.

Although the company has declined to comment on specifics in the contract proposal, union officials have said several issues remained open, including what it said was a proposal from Qwest to increase mandatory overtime from eight hours a week to 13 hours a week.

The phone company also has proposed a two-tiered pension system where new employees would not have access to a defined pension plan, according to the union.

The union wants to add an extra nonpaid personal day.

Union officials said Saturday that Qwest offered a wage proposal linked to increases in health-care deductibles and co-payments and said retirees and active employees could retain their current health-care plan if they agreed to start paying a monthly premium.

“Qwest is adamant that they need changes in benefits, not only from the aspect of actual costs but also from the outstanding liabilities that are an inherent part of any benefit program,” the union bargaining team wrote in an e-mail Sunday afternoon.

Both Qwest and the union have made preparations if there is a walkout. The company has set up a schedule to deploy managers across its region for such duties as installation and customer service.

Toevs has said operations would remain normal if there is a strike.

The company is working to reduce its overall debt of about $17. billion after losing out this year to Verizon Communications in a bidding war for MCI.

The 13 states covered by Qwest are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Utah.

Qwest is negotiating separately with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents about 300 workers in Montana.

The Associated Press and Seattle Time technology reporter Tricia Duryee contributed to this story.