Disabled in DC: How Full-Time Paratransit Employees End Up on Government Assistance

Most cities contract out for jobs driving people with disabilities. The people in these positions often earn low wages, work long hours and sometimes even qualify for food stamps and Medicaid.
by | September 1, 2015
(WMATA)

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has a robust transportation network for people without cars. It has one of the busiest transit systems in the nation that reaches deep into the suburbs, one of the biggest taxi cab fleets in the country, and a welcoming regulatory environment for ride-hailing companies like Uber. But it still struggles to provide accessible transportation to people with disabilities, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made transportation for them a civil right. 

In D.C., and many other cities, rising costs and technological change are playing havoc with efforts to increase accessibility at the same time that demand is growing because of the aging Baby Boomers.

This three-part series explores D.C.'s challenges in keeping paratransit costs under control; providing good working conditions for paratransit employees; and expanding transportation options beyond the public transit system. They are issues that the country as a whole faces as it tries to live up to the ADA's promise.

Muriel Bowser expected to talk about homelessness, not transportation services for the disabled, when she visited a gathering of 900 people in her first week as mayor of Washington, D.C., this January. The crowd, made up largely of people from religious organizations, gathered in the Gothic revival sanctuary of St. Augustine Catholic Church on a cold night to press the newly inaugurated mayor about her plans to address the many high-profile failures of the city’s homeless services.

But the discussion took a turn when Karen Reed got to the microphone. Reed overcame some initial nervousness as she explained to Bowser how she and her adult daughter ended up homeless for three months in the prior year. Reed said she was working as a driver for a Metro Access paratransit van, often working 12-hour shifts and 60-hour weeks to provide door-to-door transportation to people with disabilities who couldn't use the bus or subway. Reed showed up for work every day but couldn't afford a place to live. The pay was so low, she told the mayor, she only made $26,000 a year. She needed food stamps and Medicaid to stay afloat.

“You are going to pay me either way, in my public benefits check or in my paycheck,” Reed implored Bowser, who, as mayor, has little direct control over Metro, the local transit agency. “I enjoy working for a living. Stop insulting me. Pay me in just one check: my paycheck.”

The crowd stood in applause.

Bowser appeared to tear up, and she tweeted a picture of Reed with the message, “I hear the voices and concerns” of Reed’s union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which has been negotiating a contract with Reed's employer for more than a year. But the labor union says Bowser has offered little help since, and the mayor’s office didn't respond to requests for comment.

The confrontation, though, was a rare instance when the public heard how cost-cutting measures by transit agencies affected the workers who deliver that service.

“The drivers sometimes really get the short end of the stick. Their pay can be very low without many benefits, and they’re asked to do a really hard job,” said Wendy Klancher, the principal transportation planner for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

In the transit industry, paratransit drivers and workers are a notch below their counterparts who operate buses. Bus drivers need commercial driver’s licenses to operate the longer vehicles and carry more passengers.

But, in some ways, driving a paratransit van is harder than driving a bus.

Drivers’ routes vary every day. Their assignments often change in mid-route. They must know, and be able to navigate, all of the roads in their region, rather than a single fixed route. They must get out of their vehicle to meet passengers at building exits. And, of course, they must assist people with disabilities more often.

The difficulties don’t end there.

With the low pay, long hours and demanding work, employees quit or get fired frequently. Rules that protect government workers don’t apply to most of them because they work for private contractors rather than directly for transit agencies. The arrangement helps government agencies hold costs down by keeping labor costs low.

Paratransit has still been getting more expensive for the city, however. In a six-year span leading up to 2010, the number of Metro Access trips nearly doubled, and costs grew even quicker. Each trip now costs nearly $50 per passenger, or, after factoring for inflation, about $8 more than a decade ago. With aggressive cost-saving measures, such as raising fares and encouraging people to take buses or the subway instead, Metro kept costs down for the past three years. But now they’re climbing back again.

Bus drivers in the district generally make more than paratransit drivers. (WMATA)

In the midst of Metro Access belt-tightening, Metro's contract with its previous paratransit provider expired, so the agency opened its services up for new contracts. The agency has used outside providers since it began paratransit operations two decades ago to comply with the 1990 American with Disabilities Act. But this time, with more services to deliver, it contracted with five companies rather than just one. One vendor handles quality assurance, another dispatching, and the remaining three do the driving and vehicle maintenance. Metro itself owns the fleet of more than 500 Metro Access vans, giving the appearance of a unified service to riders and the public.

Most of the companies with winning bids were huge corporations that do business far beyond Washington.

Reed, the driver who addressed the mayor, worked for a company called First Transit, which is part of an international conglomerate that also owns Greyhound, the largest private fleet of school buses in the country and a quarter of Britain’s passenger rail services. First Transit won a third of the $360 million in the Metro Access driving business over 10 years. TransDev, a conglomerate that owns Super Shuttle and operates transit services on five continents, took half. Diamond Transportation Services, which is based in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, took the rest.

Metro requires contractors to pay their workers a “living wage,” which is currently $13.14 an hour, or about $27,000 a year for someone working 40-hour weeks every week of the year. Starting pay for city bus drivers, in contrast, is almost $40,000 a year.

Beyond pay and safety-related measures, though, Metro leaves most of the conditions of employment to its contractors.

“The contractors, as employers, have their own legal obligations to oversee the workforce. It’s really not for us to interfere with that,” said Christian Kent, the head of Metro’s Access services. “We rely on them to act responsibly as businesses to take care of those things.”

Nationwide, seven out of every 10 paratransit trips are provided by private companies. Transit agencies in large metropolitan areas overwhelmingly use outside providers: 84 percent of trips in metro areas with more than 1 million people are delivered by contractors.

Transit agencies rely on the private sector mainly to save money. In a 2013 survey of 200 agencies that used privatized paratransit, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that nearly three quarters of them decided to use outside companies to reduce costs. It was by far the most popular reason cited.

Those savings come from lower labor costs, Metro officials told the GAO. Contractors keep employee costs low through high turnover, through which companies pay substantial amounts of their workforce entry-level wages. The contractors also save money because they don’t provide pensions or other benefits available to public workers and large companies can negotiate lower health-care rates than public agencies because of their sizes.

Todd Brogan, an ATU organizer, said privatization also decreases the quality of service to paratransit clients, which is why the union opposes efforts to privatize the service in the few remaining systems, like Atlanta’s, where paratransit services are still provided by the city.

“Privatized paratransit has never made paratransit better. It’s made it cheaper,” he said. “The ways they’ve done it almost always negatively affects service.”

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The Transportation Research Board found that more than half of transit agencies with paratransit services said the availability of drivers impacted their system's performance, especially by causing delays. And private companies have a far bigger problem keeping those jobs filled than their public counterparts. Only 29 percent of private operators consistently had a full workforce, compared with 50 percent of public agencies.

But Wendy Klancher, the transportation planner, said reversing course for Metro wouldn’t be practical.

“Pulling in Metro Access to be a Metro employee-run service would go against everything Metro is trying to achieve in terms of cost control,” she said, noting that the private companies and even other local public transit agencies had lower costs. “If you had an employee system, it would likely be an even bigger budget for Metro Access.”

The competition for business helps Metro keep its paratransit labor costs down.

“We’re in a competitive bidding situation," said Robbie Werth, president of Diamond Transportation. "If I were to pay $20 an hour, and (TransDev) were to do $13.15 an hour… I wouldn’t be operating this contract. If you bid too high on wages, which is a substantial part of the total budget, you’re not going to get the work.”

The low wages are accompanied by long hours. Diamond, where wages start at $13.15 an hour, allows its drivers to choose itineraries that last eight, 10 or 12 hours, and the 12-hour runs are the most popular, Werth said. Many of the drivers like the long shifts, because it helps them earn overtime pay. Diamond does require drivers to take one day off a week and prohibits fatigued drivers from starting a shift, Werth said. But, he added, drivers appreciate that overtime is available.

The Transportation Research Board found turnover at large paratransit companies can top 80 percent in a year, which union officials say is common where companies aggressively cite their drivers for minor infractions. Werth, though, said most of the people who leave Diamond do so in their first three months, as they go through training and get used to the job. Drivers there start with two weeks in the classroom learning how to interact with people with different disabilities. Then, they accompany a veteran driver on a run for a week. They learn to drive the van, get tested and eventually start with easy runs. Over the course of that probationary period, Werth said, 55 percent of new drivers drop out. But once they get past the training phase, the annual turnover rate drops to 27 percent.

Union officials also expressed concerns about the cost of health care for paratransit employees making so little money, which force them onto Medicaid. Werth said employee costs will start declining this week, because of mandates in the federal Affordable Care Act that limit premiums and require employers to pick up a larger share of a plan’s costs. The price of the cheapest plan at Diamond will drop from $40 a week to $27 a week, he said.

Werth said he is unaware of an Diamond employees on public assistance, such as Medicaid. But a situation like the one Karen Reed described is conceivable, depending on the driver’s exact income, the size of her household, where she lives and other factors. In the District, for example, single-member households could qualify for Medicaid if they make less than about $24,700 a year; for two-person households, the threshold is roughly $33,500.

Larry Hanley, international president of the ATU, said he sees similar situations “everywhere” in the United States, and he blames the private paratransit companies. “By undercutting each other and the lowering price of the service to the municipality,” he said, “they condemn the workers to low wages.”