Facing increased oppression by the Metro Board through privatization and cost-cutting, MetroAccess drivers are teaming up with riders to fight back against the bad service that the cutbacks bring about. Woody Woodruff describes a rally that joined these natural allies to democratize the public's transit system.

/By Woody Woodruff/ Disability advocate Heidi Case drew applause from a packed room on Feb. 20 when she asserted that “Riders and workers are natural allies.” Case was among the speakers at a gathering of more than 100 transit workers, riders, activists, and elected officials who gathered at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist church in Adelphi, MD, to clamor for better conditions on Metro Access Vans. 

Drivers also demanded their present poverty-level wages of $13.48 an hour be increased to $15, and for sick leave to be included in their next contract.  Presently, they must use vacation days for sick leave, and after several “sick days off,” they are dismissed. 

Metro Access is the service that provides transportation for persons with disabilities on an appointment basis in the greater DC area.  The meeting was called by Amalgamated Transit Union local 1764, the union representing Metro Access employees and negotiating with WMATA for a new contract.

Riders and workers alike are struggling under what they claim are unfair conditions in the recently privatized system.  The parent agency, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA), has has outsourced this critical service for disabled persons throughout the metro-wide service area..  One speaker said the van she drove was owned by a company in France. 

Advocates for riders also seek stronger action by the Metro board to remedy bad equipment and regulatory constraints.  One man spoke from his wheel chair about Access vans arriving to pick him up but having lifts that didn’t work or that couldn’t accommodate the weight of him and his wheelchair.  A woman said she rode in a van one day whose door wouldn’t close.

Prince George’s Executive Rushern Baker was in attendance but arrived late, catching heat from activists who said that lateness or absenteeism can cost them their jobs.

Baker, whose family life is widely known to be affected by his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease, described how waiting for caregivers sometimes disrupts his schedule and causes him to be delayed. The tough audience palpably softened as he spoke.

But Baker was not off the hook as county exec – he had been challenged before he came through the door by Kimberly Lynch, a paratransit driver who said somberly that drivers were trying to serve their disabled customers within a broken system, beset by private companies that skimp on support and cheat the paratransit users.

In 2013 Metro announced award of five contracts totaling $86 million a year for five years for MetroAccess, including three transit operators who would get $68 million to transport disabled persons. The three transit operators – Veolia (now operating as TransDev), Diamond and First Transit – continue to provide what is widely considered substandard service.  Metro touted the arrangement as promoting accountability but MetroAccess driver Lynch argued that “safety, professionalism and respect” are out of reach as drivers “do the best we can within a broken system” and that WMATA officials “treat us like disposable people” and “are more interested in passing the buck than in providing solutions.”

Case, who is accessibility and safety coordinator of the Metro Rider’s Union, said of the drivers and dispatchers, “they’re just as stuck in the system as the rest of us.”

Numerous disabled clients of MetroAccess testified about their dissatisfaction with the service and with the treatment of the drivers, who they said were abused by the rules imposed by the private companies. Valencia Moody, an officer of a Prince George’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said WMATA board members needed to be reminded that their job is “service to us, not service to you.”

And driver Eric Williams said that even though Baker represented only one of the numerous jurisdictions that funded Metro, he had the power of the purse and of appointments to the WMATA board and should be held accountable for using them. The disjointed power structure of WMATA, he said, was “no excuse for inaction” and the driver/rider coalition had to pressure the other jurisdictions as well.

The goals for the event were read from the podium and executive Baker was catechized on them, asked to affirm he would push the Maryland members of the WMATA board to establish a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave for the drivers, who must give up vacation time if they are sick or caring for sick children. He was pushed, as well, to support paid sick leave legislation in Prince George’s County (where it had already failed with no visible support from Baker) and at the state level (where a bill is pending – see related story).

And he was urged to push for improvements in MetroAccess specifically –

  • > Ending a requirement for fare collection outside the vehicle regardless of weather or other hazards
  • > Ensuring that all van lifts work with actual weight on them, rather than empty-lift testing
  • > Improving the inadequate Call Center geotracking system, which falls well short of GPS capability
  • >Review the scheduling software, which often sets wasteful routes and unnecessary travel duration for disabled customers
  • >Improved sensitivity training on disability that includes input from disabled customers.

 Baker’s answers were generally “yes” to the demands though he qualified his “yes” with needs for study and review in some instances. ATU field organizer David Heller, asked which of the demands would require most follow-up and watchdogging in Baker’s case, grinned “All of them.”

 Carolyn Byerly contributed to this article.