In recent years, Rochester's Liftline service has gotten a black eye in the media and the court of public opinion, usually for reasons beyond the hard-working employees. Whatever the negative press, Liftline is truly one of Rochester's hidden gems --- a gem that with some polishing could shine brightly.
Contributing to the seemingly never-ending trials and tribulations at Liftline is that approximately 60 drivers have been working without a contract since April 1, 2002. Twenty-six arbitrations later, management's paltry proposed wage increase of 1.75 percent per year amounts to about a $9 a week raise, before taxes, for the highest paid driver --- hardly a princely sum, given all that Liftline drivers are expected to do everyday.
As much as money is a concern, the drivers at Liftline have other quality-of-work issues that, if addressed, could contribute to making Liftline the gem in the crown of Rochester's Regional Transit Service.
Time is one of them. Drivers often remark that it's not the driving that's the hard part of the job, it's the timing and lack of time available on a route. Helping to the door a person with a disability is part of the job and takes time. Waiting for late arrivals eats time. Weather, construction, and accidents gobble up precious minutes. The result: drivers spread too thin, too many people to pick up on every route, and not enough time. It's not uncommon for drivers to be off schedule within the first hour of their day.
Para transit riders are entitled to timely service. In fact, a court recently ordered RTS to improve its service, but placing all the demands on the backs of the drivers isn't the solution. Riders are afraid to register complaints regarding Liftline for fear of being dropped from service.
Let me describe a typical passenger pick-up scenario: Three days in advance, a Liftline passenger calls and requests a ride at 3 p.m. The dispatcher tells the rider that the closest available time is 3:15. The rider accepts the time and specifies the pick-up location. When the driver receives the manifest, it says 3:25 p.m. instead, or it specifies the wrong entrance, or the driver is running behind schedule. The result: no passenger to pick up. RTS codes the manifest accordingly, leaving RTS in compliance with the court's ruling, because it had a bus there on time.
This is just one example of how a good day gets off to a bad start. Factor in hostile motorists, passengers with multiple disabilities --- many of whom require special attention --- the unforeseen, which can include everything from health emergencies and traffic, and you have a recipe for the tiring, mentally frustrating, emotionally draining job of Liftline bus driver. Six months without a contract with an insignificant 1.75 percent offer on the table, and it's easy to start thinking about career options.
The management at RTS needs to understand the challenges drivers face everyday and care enough to offer a decent raise. Also, the following changes could dramatically improve morale and service:
1) Permit riders to schedule rides via the Internet. This would free up people and resources and be helpful to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
2) Upgrade the software that dispatchers use to schedule rides. It simply doesn't work well.
3) Improve employee relations. Bring back simple institutions like Driver Appreciation Day and Dress Down Friday. It sends a message that management cares.
4) Involve employees in decisions that directly affect drivers and passengers. Use a little more collaboration and a little less command and control.
5) Respect drivers enough to offer a decent wage and a timely contract. What Liftline does is truly a team effort. It's too important not to at least try.
Creating a positive ridership experience for people with disabilities doesn't take rocket science. It takes commitment and collaboration. Liftline drivers are ready for a culture change. Is RTS management ready to help deliver it?
LeRoy Hardy Jr. is a driver at Liftline and is the transportation representative for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 282 in Rochester.