- MetroAccess at work. (Photo: WMATA/Larry Levine)
As if an earthquake and a hurricane weren't enough on Metro's plate for one week, WMATA also has a brewing labor problem for first thing Monday morning — a protest at their Hyattsville building.
Multiple MetroAccess bus drivers plan to hold a rally there protesting what they're calling "unsafe" working conditions, including schedules that force drivers to work 13 hours a day and add to the risk that vehicles will drive dangerously and crash. MetroAccess helps transport around 2.5 million people with disabilities as of this past year and now costs around $100 million annually. But both ridership and cost have doubled in recent years, and the rapidly expanding size of MetroAcess has taken its toll, one effect of which is Metro attempting to shift some MetroAccess riders to using the less expensive transit of Metrorail and Metrobus, if the people with disabilities are willing and able. The Equal Rights Center has voiced concerns about the conditions of WMATA, suggesting that the transit authority discriminates against those with disabilities. The center currently has a call out for complaints of Metro discrimination.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which represents around 800 MetroAccess drivers, is organizing the protest and plans to gather at MetroAccess headquarters on Belcrest Road at 10 a.m. Monday morning. I confirmed these details with Wayne Baker, president of Local 1764, who was busy sending messages and getting the word out among his union's members. Baker said it was too early to tell how many workers the union might have at the rally, but he has a 57-passenger bus ready to take some.
"If we can get 50 people on that bus along with the others who will come on their own, I think it will be a success," Baker told me.
The union alleges that the California-based MV Transportation, the company that runs the paratransit-vehicle service of MetroAccess, has played a "dangerous game" that skirts federal law in assembling its workers' schedules. These stretched schedules, which the union says include more than a dozen members who have worked 16- and 24-hour shifts, pose a risk that a driver will fall asleep at the wheel and inadvertently kill someone, according to the union's statement. The union points to other reports of fatigue-related bus crashes in the region and how "just last week, a Super Shuttle Van crashed on the Dulles Airport Access Highway."
I called Metro's press office to see whether they were aware of the planned protest Monday and to see if they had any comment on the allegations, but they seemed — rather understandably — a little busy with hurricane preparations when we talked. Updated 4:37 p.m. to include Metro's remarks: WMATA's information specialist Cathy Asato got back to me shortly after this post's publication and told me she's talked with MetroAccess. "We are aware of the potential of the protest," Asato said but emphasized that these issues are "entirely" between the union and MV Transportation. MV Transportation has run MetroAccess since 2005. MV itself operates more than 10 subcontractors in the Washington metro area to conduct its MetroAccess operations.
What this workers' strike represents is just another tear in the tension that's come to define Metro and its unions more broadly. Considerable frustration accompanied the recent news that the Local 689 union won raises through the arbitration process. Other Metro workers recently expressed frustration at the notion that they'd be forced to work overtime for the MLK Memorial dedication. Earlier this summer, I considered the many challenges of Metrobus drivers more generally, who sometimes struggle for something as simple as a bathroom break.
The risk of reckless bus drivers is, of course, very real. Don't believe me? I can't say whether this driver was exhausted or not, but watch this video here from this Friday morning. It shows a Ride-On bus driver driving backwards on the I-270 ramp in footage that's both outrageous and dangerous. The driver had intended to take 370 toward Washingtonian Center but got on the wrong ramp (toward 270), a mistake the driver had apparently made multiple times according to the passenger who took this video. More than halfway up the ramp, the driver changed course and reversed all the way back. This happened on the 7:18 bus, route 74, from Shady Grove to the Germantown Transit Center.
Better scheduling, better coordination, and a better culture of safety needs to accompany our transit vehicles. The price we'll be paying for the alternative won't be pretty.