The Coastal Post - October, 1997

The Driver's Side At Whistlestop Wheels

By Karen Nakamura

This should wrap up our look at Whistlestop Wheels. Some readers aren't happy we've criticized this respected organization and in particular, the CEO Ed Ryken. What we're trying to show is how otherwise lovely people get caught up in the mad scramble to keep up with the Jones' BMW, while leaving their employees and customers far behind. We have no desire to throw the baby out with the bath water.

One group, however, hasn't been heard from directly and those are the drivers of the Whistlestop Wheels program. These drivers are given tremendous responsibility. They and the mechanics have kept really serious things from happening.

The Coastal Post has gotten reports, however, of a few bad apples in the barrel, and a lack of maintenance on vehicles. We felt it was our duty to investigate further. Complaints of irregularities have come from three different sources.

One passenger, a regular, needs wheelchair assistance and uses the service to get to kidney dialysis. In one instance, this man made his usual appointment to be picked up a half hour before. The driver never showed. The dispatcher, thinking the customer had been picked up, was shocked when an hour later the passenger called to say he was still waiting. The driver had gone home without notice. This slip-up could easily have been life-threatening.

Rather than being fired on the spot, he was given supervision. Other passengers report rude behavior and rough handling. However, these negligent drivers are rarely taken to task, or not always appropriately.

But the big complaints regard maintenance. We were able to catch up with a former driver, Angel Torres, who is still upset by the safety conditions. While employed at WW, he made several requests for better safety equipment. One problem was particularly bothersome. The bolting mechanism to lock wheelchairs in place didn't hold the chairs tightly enough on several vehicles. On four separate occasions, customers (one being our above long-suffering regular), were thrown on the floor, wheelchair and all, when the buses went around a corner. Mr. Torres got little response to his complaints until he threatened to approach the Golden Gate Transit District who sub-contracts out to Whistlestop Wheels.

It should be noted that to management's credit, George Barman, the transportation director at the time, drew up a form to be filled out by each driver listing their complaints and suggestions for improvements. Management then moved ahead to fix the problems. However, in some cases, the solution was as bad as the problem. Now Mr. Torres' wheelchair runners were too wide for the chairs. When he pointed this out, he was told to work it out himself. He was finally able to rig up something suitable.

Another area of contention with Mr. Torres was when he came down with strep. Told by his doctor to take a week's rest, he was given a note to that effect. When he called to report his illness, Mr. Barman stated he wasn't sure Mr. Torres' job would be waiting when he returned.

"I was worried about losing my job, so even though I wasn't 100% recovered, I went back to work and got sick again." (We should note here that streptococcus germs introduced into disabled and elderly surroundings could be lethal.)

"It was then I was told that while I'd be paid, my salary would probably be taken from my vacation time rather than my sick leave. This makes a difference, because sick leave is simply sick leave, and vacation time is cash. If I don't use it all, I can get paid for that amount when I leave.

"There's another thing that bothers me. When you're employed, you have to sign a statement which reads, "I hereby expressly waive my entitlement, if any, to have such dispute or controversy decided by a court or jury.' So I'm forced to give up part of my rights to be employed. What happens is you go to arbitration. This isn't what it sounds like. The driver goes into a room alone and sits in a chair. In front is one of the assistant directors. In back are two more directors. The driver is then grilled, intimidated and harassed into a settlement. There's nothing drivers can do about it because they have no representation."

But Mr. Torres agrees the program is an excellent one. He just feels certain methods of operation need improvement. Amazingly, Mr. Torres voted against unionization. But it wasn't because of a distaste for unions. Rather he felt the drivers should be represented by the Teamsters or some union that deals with transportation that would help him move in his field.

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