Last night, our LIFT Region 2 Liaison Officer Cathy Redwine, staff Communications Coordinator Andrew Riley, and ATU friend/union-side labor lawyer Barbara Diamond were on KBOO Community Radio to discuss our campaign to improve paratransit service in the Portland region. You can listen to the interview on KBOO’s website, and we’ve included a transcript of the appearance below:
KEN JONES (KBOO): You may have seen those smaller TriMet shuttles in your neighborhood, independent of regular public buses. These shuttles are part of the special TriMet LIFT paratransit service, which mostly serves people with disabilities and the elderly.
While the LIFT service is overseen by TriMet, it’s outsourced to a company called First Transit, which is part of the multinational corporation First Group. The Portland-area Workers Rights Board is currently gathering testimony from LIFT riders and drivers about labor and human rights violations they’ve experienced since First Transit took over the LIFT service.
In addition to gathering the testimony, the Workers Rights Board is also seeking solutions. To learn, we’re fortunate to have with us in the KBOO studios right now, we have Andrew Riley, Cathy Redwine, and Barbara Diamond. Andrew, I know you’re the communications coordinator for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. Cathy and Barbara, can you tell us a little about yourselves, your connection to the LIFT hearings?
BARBARA DIAMOND (LABOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY): I’m on the board of the Jobs with Justice. I’m on the board because I am a civil rights attorney.
JONES: And you’re Cathy?
DIAMOND: No, I’m Barbara.
JONES: Okay, I had a 50/50 chance, I’m sorry [laughter]
Cathy, can you tell us more about yourself?
CATHY REDWINE (ATU, LIFT OPERATOR): I’m the Liaison Officer for Region 2 LIFT out of Beaverton, Oregon, for First Transit.
JONES: Now, I want to start off first a little bit about the TriMet LIFT paratransit service, and whoever feels they can answer this the best. We have three of you in the studio, I appreciate that. What does the LIFT service do, and who does it serve?
REDWINE: It mostly serves elders and people with disabilities, a lot of whom have come out of the institutions that they deinstitutionalized in the 80s, I believe it was 80s and 90s. They live in group homes now, and they made a mandate where you have to transport them to a group workshop and they have to be out of their group home so many hours every day.
And that’s where the LIFT buses come in, because we transport them to their workshops, or to the doctor, or wherever they need to go. And then we go back and pick them up. Anytime service is booked for these people, they have a round trip guaranteed.
JONES: And the service, as I mentioned, is overseen by TriMet, but it’s actually outsourced to an independent company. And that’s First Transit?
JONES: And is that a recent development, or has that been true from the very beginning of the LIFT service?
REDWINE: It was in-house to start with, and I don’t know what year they actually put them out for contract. But I know Mayflower was one of the first contractors, and there’s been, I believe, about six contractors in the last 35 years. First Transit came into being, I believe, in about 2007.
JONES: So in the past 11 years, has the service changed much from previous contractors? Meaning, were their violations to drivers and riders also under other outsourced companies, or is it just starting with First Transit?
REDWINE: Well, there’s always been a few violations. But First Transit is pushing on-time performance and number of customer riders per hour more than any of the other services that I know anything about.
I first worked for Laidlaw, and we had an issue where we had to have our passengers off the bus in an hour, or an hour and a half tops. Now that doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore, since some of our passengers are on for three hours or more. And when they don’t have the cognitive skills to understand why, they get very agitated. They’re not equipped, especially if they’re in wheelchairs, to be riding around four hours in the bus.
And we’re not caregivers, so if they have special needs that they need somebody to attend to, they can’t be attended to until we drop them off at their drop-off location.
JONES: Now, Barbara, if you want to take this… as mentioned in the intro, the Workers Rights Board’s currently hearing testimony about labor and human rights violations experienced by the riders and the drivers here, as Cathy told us. What is the Workers Rights Board, and how did these violations come to the Board’s attention?
DIAMOND: Well, the Workers Rights Board is put together of groups of experts. Professors, public officials, attorneys, and people affected, people from groups that are interested in civil rights and workers’ rights. And we’re put together to ensure that we have the depth of expertise to analyze these issues.
JONES: And you’ve conducted your first hearing, that was last month, in May?
DIAMOND: Yes, and it was really very well-attended, we had people who were from the community, who are experiencing disabilities…
Although it does include severely impaired folks who might have in the past lived at Fairview. It also includes a wide variety of people who are not quite as severely disabled, and it’s a way for people who use wheelchairs or who have other forms of access needs to basically do anything they would need to do in the community.
The problem that we saw explained to us is that the system doesn’t seem to be created to allow people to actually work if they’re capable of working, because there’s no guarantee that people can be picked up and delivered on time to work in the morning and picked up in the evening on time. Because if you have to wait for three hours, there’s no workplace that’s going to let you wander in several hours late.
That’s just not a sustainable thing, so what we’re finding is that rather than encouraging people to contribute to society, and having the benefit to society of the full inclusion of people with disabilities, you know, the system itself is disadvantaging not only riders but the people who work in this system as well. So it’s really a double-edged sword that way.
JONES: It’s not really doing what it was formed to do, to pick up people with disabilities and help them get to work or where they need to get to…
DIAMOND: Or go to church, or go out on a date, or do anything that people without disabilities are able to do in our mass transit system. And that deprives the community of the luscious contributions people with disabilities would make.
You know, it’s not only a question of helping people with disabilities, it’s the fact that we as a society would do better with the active engagement of all of our citizens in the community, not just people who are non-disabled.
JONES: Now, Andrew, you’re with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. I have a two-part question for you. First, what’s the union’s role in these hearings? And I’m interested in what First Transit’s response has been to these complaints and these violations.
ANDREW RILEY (ATU STAFF): Yeah, so, the Union’s interest and role in this is that we represent the operators and dispatchers at all three regions providing paratransit service, it’s about 390 members. And we have been hearing story after story about the treatment our folks are facing in the workplace. Some seem common to the paratransit industry across the US, but some seem really focused from First Transit.
And so over the last couple of years we’ve worked, in particular our organizers Jared Franz and Krista Cordova, to put together what we call a Paratransit Conference to bring over, to bring folks from Oregon and southern Washington together to really talk about what’s common and what can we do better industry-wide. And this Workers Rights Board hearing, the idea of working with Jobs with Justice to hold it, really came out of that.
In terms of First Transit’s response, you know, we’ve gotten a little bit of a hint of one positive change. One thing we heard loud and clear from our folks is around scheduling. Often we’ll have folks who are scheduled to pick up passengers or start work around 4am, 5am, and you can’t call in to get your schedule for that day until the night before at about 8 o’clock.
Well, if you got to get to work by 4am, you’ve got to go to bed sooner than 8, so that’s been a big challenge. In particular because there are what are called “hours of service” regulations in the transit industry, where you have to get a certain amount of sleep every night. You don’t want your operator, you know, asleep at the wheel…
JONES: Of course, that’s where the union comes in.
RILEY: Absolutely, we’ve been fighting for those for years. So we have heard that First has commited to providing folks with their schedules at 6pm the night before, although we haven’t seen that manifest necessarily, but they…
JONES: Oh, I have to interrupt you, I’m sorry, because we have just about a minute left, and I just wanted to make sure the listeners knew how they could participate. I know there’s an event coming up at the end of June. Andrew, did you want to tell us about that real quickly, and where listeners can find out more information?
RILEY: It’s like you knew there was a shameless plug on my paper here… [laughter]
Next Monday, June 25th, we’re hosting the follow-up event with Jobs with Justice and the Real Choice Initiative. It’s called a “Speak Out for Accessibility in Transit and Housing.” It’s going to be 6 to 8pm at the SEIU 503 union hall, 6401 SE Foster Rd. here in Portland. From 6 to 6:30, we’ll have a solidarity rally with workers and riders together. And thenf from 6:30 to 8 we’ll hear open-mic testimony from, predominantly from community members, folks with disabilities, but also from workers as well about the challenges they’re facing and what we can do to fix it.
JONES: Well, thanks to all of you for coming down here, Andrew Riley, Cathy Redwine, and Barbara Diamond. You can learn more about the Workers Rights Board and the LIFT hearings at Portland Jobs with Justice’s website, jwjpdx.org.