Low-paid East Bay Paratransit drivers, who transport the disabled, flock to Facebook

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More and more drivers who transport the East Bay’s most vulnerable population – the disabled and the elderly – are leaving their posts for more lucrative jobs as shuttle drivers carting around techies for Facebook, Google and Apple.

“I make double plus, now,” said Ray Nunnery, 57, of Oakland, who recently quit working for East Bay Transit to pick up professionals at Twitter and LinkedIn. “I get all the food you can eat. A free gym. A place to take a nap. And soon, our insurance is going to be free. Yes, you get attached to some of the passengers you take to dialysis appointments, but hey, money pays the bills.”

And because of drivers like Nunnery, many who ride the publicly funded East Bay Paratransit system often are late to their doctor's appointments if they get there at all. That’s because the continuing shortage of drivers is making it increasingly difficult to get their frail passengers to appointments on time. At the same time, there are those paratransit drivers who refuse to leave their jobs – and are now in a public wage war to fight for higher salaries – because they feel a sense of commitment to their passengers – grandmas and war veterans, for example – whom they consider as close as family.

Starting pay for an East Bay Transit driver is about $14 an hour. Starting pay to work at Google or Facebook is nearly $30 an hour. This pay discrepancy is what is largely causing the dearth of paratransit drivers, first reported last week week by the East Bay Express.

“Every day we have people who don’t come to work because the pay isn’t good,” a senior driver from San Leandro told KTVU. He is a single man who earns $23 an hour after 20 years of working for the agency, pays $600 a month in insurance and considers himself pretty lucky. “They don’t care about this job,” he said. He said a friend of his recently starting driving Facebook employees around and her starting pay is $29 an hour.

He described a case recently where a woman had to ride with him for three hours on her way to a Pleasanton physical therapy appointment because he had to take other passengers to San Francisco and El Sobrante as there were no other drivers to pitch in and work that day. “She was very angry,” he said. “She was calling me names.”

The anger has reached a near boiling point.

Teamsters Joint Council 7 political director Doug Bloch told KTVU that there is definitely a threat of an all-out strike.

”Unfortunately this time it seems we will have to actually strike,” he said. “But our drivers really don’t want to. “They know they are carrying around the most vulnerable people who have no other way to get out of the house to get to their dialysis appointments or to the doctor. Obviously, our clients are a lot different than the typical Facebook employee.”

Barbara Henderson is certainly not a Facebook employee. The 62-year-old El Sobrante woman, who sees about five doctors in San Francisco, said she's ridden on a paratransit bus for four hours at some points and been late for her various appointments because the drivers are "overworked and underpaid."

She said she hears the dispatchers "giving them add-ons when they already have a full itinerary. Whoever is running the show has no strategic plan." 

While the passengers might be different, the overall workplace issues the 500 paratransit drivers are facing are pretty similar to the issues the Loop shuttle drivers faced a couple of years ago when they complained of low pay and high healthcare costs while working for tech giants.

And after a lot of rallies, publicity and negotiations, those high-tech shuttle drivers, like Nunnery, are now earning close to $30 an hour. And some of them zero health insurance costs because companies like Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, eBay, Zynga, Apple, Google stepped up, Bloch said.

Bloch is hoping the Teamsters can win the same benefits for the drivers who take people in wheelchairs and who are frail to needed appointments throughout the East Bay. But he knows it will be an uphill battle. The high-tech companies renegotiated their contracts with the bus companies to cover the increased costs. AC Transit and BART, the agencies that largely fund the service, do not have that kind of money. 

“Facebook and LinkedIn and Apple have budgets that ACT Transit and BART can only dream of,” Bloch said, referring to the two East Bay transit agencies who contribute millions of dollars to help make the paratransit agency run. “These transit agencies are mandated to provide paratransit. But it’s an unfunded mandated. I called it, ‘No Bus Driver Left Behind.’ ‘’

East Bay Paratransit is mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But it’s up to the regional agencies to pick up much of the cost. BART and AC Transit use a mix of local, state, and federal funds, along with passenger fares ranging from $4 to $7 a trip to provide the service.

What’s especially upsetting, Bloch said, is that union members were able to help successfully pass two measures that pumped $11 million into the agency’s operating budget. But yet, their salaries remain lower than their paratransit agencies in the Bay Area. “Our members did all this work,” Bloch said, “and they were expecting to see something on the other side.

East Bay Paratransit drivers are the lowest paid among the other paratransit drivers in the Bay Area, according to a comparison of salaries provided by the Teamsters.

For example, East Bay Paratransit drivers start at $13 or $14 an hour and top out at between $17 to $22 an hour after 10 years. Muni drivers start at nearly $18 an hour and earn nearly $23 an hour after five years.

Not only that,  paratransit drivers are paying much more for health insurance and in many cases don’t even buy it, Bloch said. According to an AC Transit staff report, some paratransit drivers are paying $600 a month for individual insurance. Comparatively, paratransit drivers for the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency can pay either $120 a month for Kaiser Permanente or receive Healthy San Francisco benefits for free.

Jay Jeter, General Manager for Transdev, a multinational company based in France that oversees the three companies who provide paratransit drivers, did not return phone calls to KTVU seeking comment. But in letters that he provided to the board of AC Transit this summer, he wrote:

“Transdev believes that providing competitive salaries, affordable health care programs and achievable driver incentive programs not only encourage labor harmony but also serve as essential components of successful driver recruitment and retention programs.” He sent letters to First Transit, MV Transportation and A-Para Transit – the companies who subcontract the drivers – to let them know that they would be monitoring their recruitment and retention efforts and their compliance to wage and benefit requirements.  Representatives from those three companies did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment from KTVU.

In 2013, BART and AC Transit signed a five-year, $430 million agreement with Transdev, and both agencies recently approved renewing the contract for another five years.

Spokesman Robert Lyles emphasized that AC Transit has no control over who the paratransit agency hires to run its vehicles, and no control over what those companies pay their workers.

But he added: “Of course, we’re sympathetic to the basic tenants of living in the Bay Area.” While the contract was approved, Lyles said it “wasn’t a blanket approval. If there are questionable practices,” the issue could be brought back to the board.

For now, 54-year-old East Bay Paratransit driver John Bragdon, who earns $19 an hour after 16 years on the job, doesn’t plan to leave his job, though he’s very frustrated with his low wages. But he said he stays, unlike one of his supervisors who recently left to drive for Google, because of the special relationship he has with the passengers.

“I have one woman who is 112 years old,” Brandon said. “She’s like my grandma. I have veterans who are disabled who I don’t even let pay. They served our country so I pay for t hem. These people are not being treated well and they’re like my family.”