The Coastal Post - June, 1997

Whistlestop Wheeler Dealer

BY KAREN NAKAMURA

You needn't go to strawberry fields to find worker exploitation. It's going on in Marvy Marin. Let's look at Whistlestop, a program that's long served the disabled and seniors and is an organization where everyone approves of the Buck grant. Our problem is not with the program's work, rather it's with the working conditions of the full-time drivers of its Whistlestop Wheels program.

This story has three elements. First is the recent announcement of $57,000 in cuts to the transit budget. Advocates feel the service should be expanded and the budget increased by $200,000. Whistlestop Wheels has 70 buses but a client backlog. And it must grow to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Negotiations are in progress.

The second element is wages and benefits afforded the full-time drivers of those buses. People in non-profit organizations don't expect to get rich. Most are there for altruistic reasons as much as monetary. Whistlestop's the same, with numerous volunteers and part-time workers. Many are dedicated seniors supplementing their income while serving the community.

The full-time drivers, however, are younger. Many have families. These risk-takers aren't paid salaries commensurate with their skills, which include medical emergencies, wheelchairs and Alzheimer's patients, besides driving safely. One driver didn't get a raise for 10 years. He must have worked adequately to have been employed so long. Others have fared little better.

While the mechanic is paid more, wages are at the low end of the pay scale, ranging from $6 to $9 an hour. Not exactly a living wage in the Bay Area. Their only benefit is an employer/employee even split on Kaiser and Delta Dental.

Discontent grew among full-timers. Driver Jeanne Keja took it upon herself to contact the union, Communications Workers of America, Local 9404. Bernie Chiaravalle, president, gave her materials and organizing ideas. Ms. Keja went back to the drivers and asked them to sign union cards saying they'd like representation. It was at this point that Ed Ryken, Executive Director of Marin Senior Co-ordinating Council, Inc. (formerly and commonly known as Whistlestop) stepped in. This sequence was initiated when Mr. Chiaravalle received a phone call, directed by Mr. Ryken, from the well-known anti-union law firm of Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos and Rudy of San Francisco.

By law, Whistlestop had to allow an election for union representation. However, the law firm insisted that food service drivers be included. This group has the greatest concentration of part-timers. Many are retirees with benefits from other sources. Some don't want to pay union dues for services they have or can't afford. Not wanting to give MSCC management reason to delay the election, the full-time drivers agreed. The vote was a win among full-time drivers, but part-timers tilted the balance and the union was voted down.

Jeanne Keja was down-sized. The reason given was anticipated budget cuts. However, several drivers were reportedly hired soon after. The matter is under litigation.

Which brings us to the third point: management. Mr. Chiaravalle saw this as a classic union-busting tactic-bring in voters who don't directly benefit from membership. The wily old fox of a union man found his interest whetted.

Why would and how could a small, non-profit hire such a prestigious law firm? Pro bono? Perhaps. Bernie decided to look into the matter, that and the health benefit split that can be devastating to low-paid employees.

What he found was CEO Ryken is actually a full-time employee of the County of Marin and receives full health coverage and a pension plan. Many of these benefits, by the way, were won by SEIU-MAPES, the service employees union.

While Mr. Ryken has been paid by the county for years, he holds no position. His only job is at Whistlestop. It's called creative financing. At one point, the Board of Supervisors created a way for the director of the non-profit to be paid enough to hire a qualified person. Rumor has it this was Gary Giacomini's baby. New grants allow MCSS to pay half of Ryken's salary.

Here's the twist. For some reason, perhaps benign, the county still pays Ryken's full salary. MSCC reimburses the county. The arrangement allows Ryken to continue receiving full health and pension benefits. This matters, because Mr. Ryken is the only one at Whistlestop who has full benefits. According to the employee protection act (ERISA), this arrangement could be illegal.

The ruling we refer to states that if one worker in an organization receives certain benefits, then all employees are entitled to the same benefits. In other words, if Mr. Ryken, who hired a law firm to deny benefits to his employees is receiving benefits, so must his employees. And the employees must receive back benefits for as long as Ryken received them. Equal treatment for benefits and pensions is also required by IRS employment tax laws to qualify for tax exempt status. Either Marin County employs Mr. Ryken and is responsible for the others in his organization, or the MCSS and the county are joint employers and thus mutually responsible. Or Mr. Ryken is an employee of MSCC, and MSCC should provide the same benefits to other employees. Attorneys on all sides are researching the question.

Another issue comes into play. With the director being paid by the county, it has ties which could be in conflict. Mr. Ryken has control over employees; does that ultimately give the Board of Supes control over Whistlestop?

Another troubling aspect is that Whistlestop buses and drivers were used to transport Buck Center for the Aging supporters to pack those contentious Board of Supes meetings. Who paid the expenses?

Supervisor Giacomini, a backer of Whistlestop, is also pro-Buck Center. Is there a connection? How did Whistlestop hire such a high-flying law firm? Meanwhile, ex-supervisor Giacomini now works for Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos and Rudy in their Larkspur office, the same firm that represented MSCC in its fight against unionization. It also represents the Golden Gate Bridge district with its offshoot into Marin Transit.

So who's doing what to whom? And why can't the drivers of Whistlestop Wheels earn an adequate living like their boss? More as the picture clears.