- 11 Photos
- The protesting workers gathered along Belcrest Road, Hyattsville, where Metro houses its MetroAccess and Lost and Found. (Photo: John Hendel/TBD | Date: Aug. 29, 2011)
MetroAccess bus drivers carry nearly 2.5 million of D.C. metro area's residents with disabilities as of the 2011 fiscal year — and they feel their new working schedules have made their driving dangerous. MV Transportation, the company that operates MetroAccess, began scheduling its drivers to work 13-hour shifts about six weeks ago, says Wayne Baker, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 since 2006. His union represents about 800 MetroAccess drivers, and this morning, about 15 of them took signs to the MetroAccess and WMATA headquarters at 10 a.m. to march in circles and chant about the risks of the new schedule and other concerns that California-based MV has allegedly ignored.
"Thirteen hours! Safety first!" the bus drivers shouted as they marched in front of the MetroAccess headquarters on Belcrest Road in Hyattsville, Maryland. "Enough is enough — can't take no more!" the small crowd repeated in unison as passersby attempted to understand what was happening and as drivers sometimes honked in solidarity. A cool breeze accompanied the drivers' steady march and a sky punctuated with clear signs and distinctly loud, planned shouts.
The paratransit bus drivers' many signs, strung around their necks and carried on sticks, echoed these messages: "Fatigue is unsafe," one sign read. "We aren't appreciated by our employers ... MetroAcess drivers are subject to safety hazards." Photos show what the morning gathering looked like.
MetroAccess is housed in the same Prince Georges Plaza compound that houses Metro's Lost and Found. I went down there this morning to get a sense of how the protest came together. The drivers planned to rally for close to an hour and a half there, and then move to WMATA's headquarters in the Jackson Graham building for another hour or so in the early afternoon. MetroAccess have always endured tough schedules, Baker told me. They had complained about 12-hour schedules since day one. But the 13-hour schedules imposed six weeks ago are stretching the workers far too thin. Baker himself carried a sign around his neck that said, "We are fed up, can't take any more, enough is enough."
"It's just too much ... It isn't the union's intent to make MV [Transportation company, which runs MetroAccess] look bad," Baker told me. The union president adds that "we want to make it clear there won't be any work stoppages." He said he hopes this is a wake-up call and that MV recognizes the dangers in the recently implemented 13-hour schedule — Baker says that MV would benefit more in the long run. "What happens if, God forbid, there's a fatality?" the soft-spoken man asked.
The drivers who marched along Belcrest Road expressed strong agreement with the concerns of Baker.
"We need rest," 42-year-old Venetia Johnson told me. "The hours are literally killing us ... We love our clients. I wouldn't want my mother or grandmother to have a driver like me. I wouldn't want your grandmother to have a driver like me."
In one recent shift, Johnson worked nearly 14 hours without a break. She sighed and smiled at the outrage, saying she was more than ready to come support the day's rally. All the five-hour energy drinks and cups of coffee in the world start to lose their power during such long shifts. Johnson has worked a MetroAccess driver for about three years now.
"I say tired — this is an understatement," Johnson said. "No bathroom breaks. This is normally their practice."
Baker says he tried every avenue imaginable with MV Transportation before deciding to hold a MetroAccess driver protest. He finally began assembling the signs and reaching out to drivers last Friday, which I wrote about here. The company hasn't been receptive, according to the union president. MV had told Baker and the union that these controversial 13-hour schedules are "WMATA-mandated," but he doubts this is true. Last Friday, WMATA's Cathy Asato told me that this matter is entirely with MV Transportation and not WMATA at all. I made multiple attempts to talk with representatives from MV, and the company ultimately relayed a statement through attorney Pat Riley. The statement refers to "recent productive discussions" with the union and continues in an exceedingly formal tone:
MV believes these discussions will continue to be productive and MV is optimistic that these discussions will lead to a resolution of the employee concerns. MV does not believe that any employee rallies occurring this week will disrupt MetroAccess service or impair the quality and safety of MetroAccess service. MV prefers not to address the specifics of the employee concerns in public statements and MV hopes that the forum provided by continued direct discussions with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 will efficiently and successfully address employee concerns.
Other Metrobus driver concerns included how MV Transportation deals with vacation time (they don't always seem to give it), sick leave, and protocol for picking up passengers. One big point of contention cited by Baker and multiple drivers was the requirement that MetroAccess riders pay before the driver lets them on. Showing money on the open street is dangerous, the drivers say, and exposes both drivers and riders to unnecessary risks. Sharon Jackson had worked as a MetroAccess driver for going on three years until last January, when she slipped on ice and tore a rotary cup. MV laid her off at the end of May, and she's struggled to raise young children by herself in the months since. Her sign conveyed that message: "I'm a single parent, I was injured on the job, and I was fired."
"We've been very mistreated," Jackson said quietly.
The gathered MetroAccess drivers plan to repeat today's protests on Thursday, but Baker is not entirely sure what the next step is. He just knows that the current 13-hour schedules cannot go on. The word he uses to describe the Metroaccess riders — people with disabilities — is "precious." He emphasizes that they're not transferring cattle. These are people, Baker says, and both they and the drivers deserve a safer system.