06 Oct LRTA paratransit service stopped as drivers strike – Lowell…
LOWELL — Customers of the Lowell Regional Transit Authority’s Road Runner paratransit service, which provides rides to doctor appointments and other needs to residents over 60, were left stranded Monday as the service’s drivers went on strike.
LRTA Administrator James Scanlan said the LRTA isn’t involved in negotiations since the drivers work for a contractor, but he called the strike “unfortunate” and said the paratransit service provides rides to about 80 to 100 people over 60 each day. Scanlan said the number was twice that before the pandemic.
Drivers picketing outside the LRTA’s Gallagher Intermodal Terminal on Monday afternoon said they hated to take such a step, but felt they had no other option as they negotiate for a larger health insurance contribution and better pay from the contractor that employs them.
“This wasn’t an easy decision for the drivers,” said Jim Marks, a business agent with Teamsters Local 170, the union that represents the drivers and mechanics.
Marks said the drivers often form relationships with the passengers they carry on a regular basis, which is both part of why they deserve more pay and part of why they hoped they wouldn’t have to strike.
Another union business agent, Ken Bergen, said the drivers want the LRTA contractor that they work for, MV Transportation, of Dallas, to cover 80% of their health insurance instead of the current 30%, and that they also want better pay.
Bergen said many of the driver’s, who make $16 an hour when they start full time and $14 an hour if they start part-time, can’t afford such a large contribution to their health insurance, which is especially important since they work with vulnerable clients. Marks also cited high turnover among the drivers due to the low pay.
“Especially in these days of COVID, it’s essential that we have affordable health care,” Bergen said.
The strike started Monday morning and includes about 10 drivers. There used to be more, but the numbers have dropped off since the start of the pandemic.
Jeff Womack, chief marketing officer for MV Transportation, said in an email that his company has worked with the LRTA since 2014 to manage the Road Runner and Senior Dial-A-Ride services, and that they have been negotiating with drivers since September.
He said the company has offered a proposal that includes above-market guaranteed annual wages, benefit cost sharing, increased sick day accruals and increased training differential.
“Our offer is fair and competitive with no concessions,” Womack wrote. “We are disappointed Teamsters Local 170 has chosen to strike and put Lowell’s most vulnerable citizens at risk.”
But Bergen said it is the company that is putting vulnerable passengers at risk. He said MV Transportation’s director of labor relations threatened Monday morning on a phone call that all of the drivers may be fired if they continue to strike.
“They’re walking away from good, dedicated drivers who do their job, and basically they’re putting their customers at risk,” Marks said.
Asked about the threat of firing striking workers, Womack said “It is not our intent to fire any employee.”
“However, our focus is on maintaining service for our riders and we will exercise our full rights under the law to do so, which may include hiring permanent replacements,” Womack wrote in an email.
Bergen said the union asked the LRTA to intervene in negotiations but got no help.
Both Scanlan and Womack said they hoped to minimize the disruption for passengers, as did the drivers.
“We are mobilizing all possible resources to help minimize the disruption on our passengers – with a high priority on the critical medical transportation needs of the community’s elderly and infirm passengers,” Womack wrote.
He said the company began notifying passengers with scheduled trips on Monday, and that those who have not been contacted can call Road Runner at 978-459-0152 with questions, or to change travel plans.
“As we go forward, hopefully it won’t be something that’s long,” Scanlan said of the strike.