At a recent hearing on May 17th of the Portland Area Workers’ Rights Board, hosted by Portland Jobs with Justice and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, over 100 community members heard testimony about TriMet’s LIFT paratransit service. The testimony highlighted a disturbing trend of labor and human rights violations that began when TriMet outsourced the service to First Transit, which is a subdivision of the multinational corporation First Group.
Testimony was heard from drivers and riders who have first hand experience with this service since it has been outsourced to First Transit, care workers whose jobs are impacted by the quality of the LIFT paratransit service, and public transit systems specialists who offered alternatives and potential solutions to some of the issues faced by drivers and riders of TriMet’s LIFT paratransit.
Unlike fixed-route service where riders walk or ride a bike to a bus stop and wait for the bus to show up and take them to another bus stop, Trimet’s LIFT service is comprised of public transit buses that serve primarily the elderly and people with disabilities through non-fixed route bus service. Riders call and make appointments for service. A bus comes directly to their home (or wherever they need to be picked up from), and the driver takes them directly to their place of work, medical appointment, or wherever it is they need to go.
LIFT drivers testified about a variety of scheduling, workers rights, and health and safety issues that First Transit is failing to be accountable for. “We get our breaks at totally bizarre times. Some of us have to take a break at the very beginning of our work day, even if we haven’t driven yet” said Mary Maxwell to a panel of five Workers’ Rights Board members that included Johanna Brenner, Professor Emerita from PSU; Oregon State Senator Michael Dembrow, Reverend Cecil Prescod of Ainsworth United Church of Christ, attorney Barbara Diamond of Diamond Law, and Bus Riders Unite! organizer Orlando Lopez.
This practice means that drivers have to go hours at a time without being allowed to use the bathroom and often soil themselves. A common theme of driver testimony was bathroom accidents while driving and wear adult diapers to work because they can’t take bathroom breaks. One driver was recently fired in August of 2017 for going to the bathroom in a parking lot because drivers are not legally allowed to leave riders in the bus unattended.
But according to Karen Kreutzer, who drives for LIFT in Washington County the practice affects the health and safety of riders as well, “There are times when scheduling has kept passengers on the bus so long that they’ve had a bathroom accident, which causes a biohazard. I am then asked to put up the affected seat and continue my route. If the person is in a wheelchair, the seatbelts often get biohazard waste on them. But they’re not cleaned, and then they’re used for the next rider.”
Riders also had complaints to issue about the poor quality of TriMet’s LIFT service under the operation of First Transit. Rides being canceled and riders being stuck on the bus for hours at a time before being dropped off were common themes in the testimony of riders. Nico Serra, who uses a wheelchair, stopped using LIFT two years ago because the quality of service had gotten so bad.
“There needs to be very clear and appropriate minimum standards of treatment for people with disabilities, elders and others with health concerns on LIFT buses, including the drivers” Serra said. “If First Transit won’t listen and implement proper treatment of riders and drivers, TriMet needs to end their contract with them and bring LIFT back under their management.”
Testimony was also provided by Jill Carrillo, who works as a dispatcher for C-Tran’s paratransit service in Vancouver, WA and is an employee member of the C-Tran board of directors. Jill talked about how much better paratransit service is in Vancouver.
“No system is perfect, of course, but we’re doing much better than what we see across the river. And that’s because we provide our paratransit service, C-VAN, in-house” said Carillo, echoing the testimony given by Serra. “I’ve seen both sides of this: I’ve always worked in-house for C-TRAN, but I used to oversee paratransit service when it was operated by a contractor. The difference is like night and day.”
Among the difference she talked about are better safety procedures and fewer bus crashes under in-house service, shorter transit times for riders, and better pay and working conditions for drivers in a system that isn’t based on a model of profit over people.
After an hour and half of testimony Johanna Brenner spoke for the Workers’ Rights Board panel, “First Transit does not provide a level of service that meets the minimum standards required by the ADA. TriMet bears responsibility for guaranteeing that riders are treated appropriately and that can’t happen if drivers are not treated appropriately” said Brenner. “Experience in Vancouver demonstrates we can and should expect a much superior paratransit system for both riders and drivers.”
The panel then issued the following preliminary recommendations:
*The Portland Area Workers’ Rights Board will compose and publish a full report based on the hearing with more in depth recommendations. Visit www.jwjpdx.org/ourwork/workersrightsboard/ for updates on the publishing of that report.
A Community Speak Out on Accessibility in public transit and housing will hosted by JwJ, ATU Local 757, and Real Choice Initiative on Monday June 25th from 6:30-8pm at SEIU Local 503, 6401 SE Foster Rd. Come share your story!