Bus stop?

Paratransit drivers threaten walkout over wage inequities

Marie Borrero describes Paratransit workers as angels who’ve opened up her whole world.

Marie Borrero describes Paratransit workers as angels who’ve opened up her whole world.

Compiled By Larry Dalton

Marie Borrero has a sweet, gentle voice. She peppers the ends of her sentences with “honey” and “sweetie” with the sincerity of a kindly aunt.

She speaks of her many physical conditions that qualify as disabilities (or challenges, as self-empowerment folks might say) with frank candor and humor.

But when the 57-year-old Borrero was asked to describe what her life was like prior to becoming a rider of Paratransit—a nonprofit subsidiary of Regional Transit (RT) contracted to serve the disabled and senior-citizen communities—her voice turned something short of hard.

“I was a recluse for 10 years,” Borrero said. “Paratransit is truly my link to the world.”

Borrero explained that severe arthritis, morbid obesity and fibromyalgia place serious limitations on her ability to walk. The distance between the disabled parking spaces and the front door of any number of doctors’ offices, for example, often proves too difficult to traverse for Borrero, who frequently has several medical appointments per week.

So, the curb-to-curb service provided by Paratransit is a godsend, Borrero contended, adding that since she began riding a year ago, her “whole world has opened up.”

But Borrero’s world, like hundreds of others, may be at risk of narrowing considerably should Paratransit management and labor leaders fail to reach an agreement on an overdue wages-and-benefits package for drivers.

Represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 256—the same union representing RT drivers—Paratransit drivers voted recently to authorize a strike if “sufficient movement” is not made on the part of management toward securing a contract. Paratransit’s management will take the strike vote, along with any revised offer it receives from the union, to the next negotiating session, slated for February 2.

Drivers, whose last contract expired August 1, 2003, have been working under their old contract on a day-to-day basis since negotiations began.

Like the bulk of most labor disputes, the sticking points between the drivers and the management center on wages and benefits, although lead union negotiator Victor Guerra acknowledged that the two parties are close to agreement on the medical-benefits part of the contract.

Central to the dispute is a two-tier pay structure Paratransit management has proposed for new drivers hired without a Class B license, as well as the top pay proposed for all drivers once they’ve hit six years on the job.

Under the current contract, all drivers hired, whether they come possessing a Class B license or not, start at $8 per hour. After five months of employment, during which time all drivers would have completed training and received their Class B licenses, pay jumps to $8.45 per hour. After six years, drivers top out at $12.40 per hour.

Management’s last offer, made January 6, proposes to pay new hires without a Class B license $7.50 per hour to start, with a jump to $9 per hour after one year of service. For drivers who already possess their license when they’re hired, pay would start at $9 per hour and continue at that rate until the second year of service, when wages would increase to $10.15 per hour.

All drivers hired during the first year of the new contract would, after six years of employment, top out at $12.40 per hour. Drivers hired two years from the date of the contract going into effect would, after six years, jump to $12.90 per hour under management’s most recent proposal.

By contrast, RT drivers start at $10.81 per hour, have no two-tiered system and top out at $21.64 per hour after five years of service, according to Guerra, who was a driver for RT for 30 years before being elected president of ATU Local 256.

“Obviously, we know we’re not going to get [for Paratransit drivers] what RT drivers get,” Guerra said, “but what we’ve proposed, in wages and in the one-tier system, promotes unity, equality and harmony. Management’s proposal does not.”

On January 6, Guerra went to the table proposing that all drivers, whether they come in with a Class B or not, start at $9 per hour and jump to $9.45 per hour after five months in the first year of the contract. At four years of service, drivers would see a bump in pay to $12.20 and again to $13.90 after six years.

Guerra admitted that his proposal for the third year of the contract, $17.72 per hour after six years of service, is “a little out of line” for Paratransit’s budget realities, but he said “that’s how negotiations go. You go in high, they go in low, and hopefully you meet somewhere in the middle.

“The first year of the contract, however, is not at all out of line,” he continued. “These drivers work hard and, frankly, deal with populations with special needs, and they deserve a dollar-an-hour raise across the board.”

It’s hard to argue that Paratransit drivers aren’t underpaid or that, when compared with RT drivers, their duties don’t require more intensive contact with the passengers they serve, many of whom are transported in wheelchairs and require direct assistance boarding and unboarding the bus.

Additionally, Paratransit drivers routinely work 10- to 12-hour days, many with mandatory overtime, drivers say.

One driver, who asked that her name not be used, said the lack of movement toward contract ratification is frustrating and distressing to both drivers and passengers.

“I love my job, despite the pay,” she said. “But how can management say they care about the drivers when they’ve gone six months and we’ve got no contract, and when they’re proposing to pay starting drivers even less than what people are making now?”

In the last two weeks, this driver claimed, she’s had to field many concerns and quiet anxiety among her patrons, many of whom depend on Paratransit for regularly scheduled trips every week to dialysis.

“I keep telling them, ‘We don’t want to strike. Don’t worry. You’ll be taken care of,’” she said. “But I do worry. You grow attached to the people you serve, you know? And when you go back to the [Paratransit] yard and find out that they’re training their office staff and maintenance crew to drive in case there’s a strike … well, you definitely get the feeling they don’t care. To them, we’re a dime a dozen. They don’t think we’re very bright or skilled and we should just be damned grateful to have a job.”

Mary Steinert, a 24-year veteran of Paratransit management and a director of fleet and maintenance, said that though it is true that non-driving staff members are being trained, it isn’t a reflection of the value Paratransit places on its drivers.

“We know their value,” Steinert said. “Believe me, we don’t want it to come to a strike. But we also have a commitment to our customers, and if it means that I have to go out and pick people up, I will.

“I don’t disagree that when you look at what RT drivers make after five years and then what our drivers make, it’s unfair,” Steinert continued. “But the reality is that for any social-service-type agency, the economics are not the same. I mean, look at what our society pays garbagemen and what we pay teachers. Is that fair?”

Paratransit’s 2003-2004 budget is $14.4 million, about half of which comes from RT. The other half, Steinert said, comes from a variety of sources, including the Transportation Development Act, the Measure A sales tax, passenger fares and Sacramento city and Sacramento County funding.

Steinert also contends that six or seven months is not an unreasonable amount of time to come to an agreement about a three- or four-year contract.

“It took six months to decide 41 separate issues not involving wages,” Steinert said. “Now that we’re there—and the last offer wasn’t our final offer—I’m confident we’ll find agreement. No one should feel threatened on either side. I mean, our executive director is a radical from the ’60s; he marched with Cesar Chavez. In fact, he made Chavez’s birthday a paid holiday for our workers before the state did. He’s not out to hurt employees.”

But it’s clear that some employees do feel threatened. During a recent interview with Guerra in the offices of ATU Local 256, Guerra fielded a call from a panicked driver who said he’d been told by someone in management that if drivers went out on strike, Paratransit legally could prohibit them from returning to work once a contract was in place.

“No, no, that is not true,” Guerra said, sighing. “If it does come to a strike, your job will be protected. Please tell others that rumor is untrue.”

A potential strike has other implications, however, not the least of which is possible fines levied against RT should any passenger decide to sue for RT’s failure to provide transportation as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Guerra referred questions about possible fines to RT officials, who were unable to be reached for comment at press time.

Meanwhile, Borrero continues to use the service and is openly rooting for the drivers.

“The drivers are not the problem,” she said emphatically. “Some of the drivers are just angels. And for $8 an hour? Come on—cleaning toilets would be an easier job. The driver is like the dog that’s being kicked.”