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US West, Union Reach Deal

US West Inc. and its biggest union reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract late Sunday, ending a 15-day strike that idled about 34,000 phone workers in 13 states.

Union members were asked to return to work Monday morning and vote on the agreement sometime after Labor Day.

Major sticking points between the nation's sixth-largest telephone company and the Communications Workers of America were forced overtime, a plan to link pay to performance, and health care benefits.

The tentative agreement calls for a 10.9 percent salary increase over three years, a 21 percent improvement to the pension plan over three years, and the pay-for-performance plan would be voluntary for all employees eligible and take effect in July 1999.

The pay-for-performance plan "would have been mandatory for employees hired after January 1, 1999, but now it is voluntary for everyone," said union spokesman Lew Ellingson.

US West has said the performance-pay plan is needed to improve customer service as it gears up for increasing competition. But the union said performance would be difficult to measure for repair technicians because of such factors as outdated maps, equipment trouble, and the weather.

US West spokesman Jerry Brown said the proposal includes a cap on mandatory overtime of 16 hours a week on Jan. 1, 1999, which would fall to eight hours a week on Jan. 1, 2001. The health benefits package includes increases for dental and vision care, he said.

"We got limits on forced overtime," Ellingson said. "I think when the members look at it, the complete package, they're going to be very happy."

The agreement also includes a $500 ratification bonus for each worker.

The pact was reached after federal mediator Jim Mahon ordered bargaining teams for the company and the union back to the table on Aug. 23.

Thousands of operators, technicians, and customers sales representatives walked off the job Aug. 16. after the two sides failed to agree on a new contract. It was the first strike in US West's 14-year history.

About 15,000 managers were working 12-hour shifts to try to meet customer needs during the walkout, but customers were faced with intermittent delays in operated-assisted calls, and with getting new service or repairs.

Utility regulators in several states said they had received more calls about US West late last week, indicating that the patience of customers was wearing thin.

US West has about 25 million customers in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

US West workers in Montana belong to another union and are not on strike.

Written by Judith Kohler