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NJ TRANSIT Meets Face-To-Face With Union Leaders As Strike Deadline Looms

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- The clock is ticking towards a possible NJ TRANSIT strike on Sunday.

Leaders representing the 11 rail unions wrapped up talks Thursday with NJ TRANSIT officials at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Newark after taking a day off from negotiations, CBS2's Meg Baker reported.

NJ TRANSIT negotiator Gary Dellaverson said no announcement of a deal was imminent. He said wages and health care negotiations have yet to be reached, calling agreements "very complicated."

"I don't have anything very exciting to say," Dellaverson said. "What we did this morning, for the last few hours, has been to continue to be precise with one another... as to the areas where there still remain differences between us."

NJ TRANSIT released a notice Thursday saying that in the case of a strike, all existing positions would be terminated. All employees on sick leave would no longer receive sick leave compensation and insurance positions would be discontinued.

Union members rejected the notice and said it is counterproductive to the negotiating process.

Sen. Robert Menendez said federal negotiators will get involved if they have to, saying "we cannot afford a shutdown."

Thursday morning, rail union spokesperson Steve Burkert remained cautiously optimistic.

"We're always hopeful that's why we're sitting, talking," Burkert said.

"If there's a shutdown, it will be terrible. It will be very inconvenient," Dellaverson said during his afternoon update. "The discussions between the unions and us have continued."

WEB EXTRA: How To Get Around If NJ TRANSIT Shuts Down

Dellaverson stressed the importance of keeping the discussions cordial, 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck reported.

"When you feel pressured, bad things happen," Dellaverson said. "So I think trying to avoid that within reasonable measure is one of the things that we're trying to do."

About 105,000 people rely on NJ TRANSIT every day and railroad officials are already warning that if the strike happens, their contingency plan will only be able to accommodate around 40,000 commuters.

Commuters are hoping today's in-person negotiations could be the difference that will ensure their trains will keep running.

"There's always something in New Jersey, am I right?" one commuter said.

"We will not be able to provide the level of service or capacity that our rail service currently provides to our customers," NJ TRANSIT Interim Executive Director Dennis Martin said. 

Officials plan to increase bus service, PATH trains light rail and ferry service, and to rely heavily on park and rides. Still, car traffic getting into Manhattan could be disastrous.

"It's gonna be very disruptive a lot of people are going to be stranded," a commuter said.

Some New Jersey towns have come up with their own contingency plans, intending to have Jitney vans shuttle residents to Newark so they can take PATH trains to the city.

"We don't have enough Jitney capacity to handle our own residents so we're going to limited to that and proof of residency will be required," Barry Lewis, South Orange administrator, said.

The strike deadline is midnight Saturday, March 12. If the strike happens, NJ TRANSIT plans to gradually scale down service starting on Sunday. 

Union leaders said the major issues that divide the two sides — wage increases, workers' health care payments and contract length — are still on the table. Both sides said progress was made Tuesday.

In regard to healthcare, union workers are protesting NJ TRANSIT's demands for workers to put up 20 percent of their healthcare costs, 1010 WINS' John Montone reported.

Martin questioned how the raise would be paid for at a board meeting on Wednesday, WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reported.

"The structure of the settlement and the amount of the settlement will determine how we have to fund it," Martin said.

When asked about raising fares to cover the costs, Martin said he "can not rule out" the possibility.

Officials from NJ TRANSIT said the last days of talks were productive and they're hoping to avoid a strike.

The unions have been operating without a new contract or raise since 2011.

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