Mercury Staff

January was a bad month for Mary Maxwell. As a bus driver for TriMet’s LIFT program, which serves disabled patrons who can’t access regular transit, Maxwell had suffered through days of sexual harassment from the same passenger. Even after she filed several complaints, Maxwell says her bosses wouldn’t do anything about it. This stress was compounded by the fact Maxwell wasn’t allowed regularly scheduled breaks from her job—her grueling schedule kept her in the driver’s seat for hours without a chance to use the bathroom or seek respite from abusive clientele. The pressure built until, one afternoon, she soiled herself on the driver’s seat. It happened the next day too, and on the third day, she couldn’t take it anymore.

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“Quitting was literally the only way I could get back my dignity,” Maxwell says.

Maxwell isn’t the only LIFT driver who’s felt disrespected at her job, which has her shuttling passengers for pre-scheduled trips around the city. At a recent meeting of the Portland Jobs with Justice-affiliated Workers Rights Board (WRB), several LIFT employees and passengers shared their own experiences with LIFT, a TriMet service that has been operated by a subcontractor called First Transit since 2007. Their concerns ranged from unclear scheduling and mismanagement to unsanitary working conditions and unreasonably long wait times for riders. According to WRB Chair Johanna Brenner, TriMet must “establish clear standards for paratransit service and must hold First Transit accountable for meeting these standards.” And if improvements haven’t been made by the time the First Transit contract is up for renegotiation in the next year, WRB says it’s time for TriMet to run LIFT on its own.

LIFT riders are required to call in their reservations by 5 pm the previous day with departure and destination addresses, and drivers pick up and drop off numerous riders around the city throughout the day. There are usually multiple passengers on a LIFT bus at a time.

“We often have a bus full of people who legally cannot be left alone,” said driver Karen Kreutzer, explaining why she can’t take bathroom breaks. Scheduled breaks are often set only at the beginning of an hours-long shift. “I’m talking about holding it for four hours or longer,” Kreutzer said. “It’s hard to pay attention to the road.” LIFT passenger Nico Serra agreed. “For a handful of years I used TriMet LIFT, but I stopped using it because being on the bus is so physically demanding,” he said. “I’ve been stuck on TriMet [LIFT] buses for over four hours on some occasions.” Serra, who uses a wheelchair, said that LIFT consistently made him late for doctor appointments. “I’ve heard about personal care assistants having to medicate their wards before putting them on LIFT buses because the conditions are so difficult,” he said.

These indignities may amount to a civil rights violation. Attorney Barbara Diamond, a WRB member, says that as LIFT operates today, it doesn’t fulfill the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “This system as it’s being carried out deprives the community of the input and active participation of people with disabilities, which is what the law is supposed to address,” she says.

TriMet and First Transit representatives dispute their employees’ allegations of mistreatment. TriMet spokesperson Tia York even said that because LIFT riders don’t operate fixed routes, they “enjoy greater flexibility to access adequate facilities.” TriMet did not go into further details regarding other problems after being sent the WRB’s recommendations.

According to drivers, they didn’t have the same difficulties under the previous contractor, which was acquired by First Transit in 2007. And First Transit doesn’t have the best track record on these issues—the company has been the subject of more than 50 complaints in the tri-county area to Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries since 1998.

Other local transit systems, like C-Tran in Vancouver, have avoided these problems with their paratransit services by not working with subcontractors. Jill Carillo, a driver for C-Van, Vancouver’s LIFT equivalent, says the differences between her service and TriMet are “night and day.” According to Carillo, drivers for the city-run service get more than double the amount of training as TriMet LIFT drivers, transport twice the number of passengers per hour, and are able to use the bathroom when necessary.

“We ensure that people with disabilities in our region can actually get around and live their lives,” Carillo says. Though it costs a bit more to have the services run by C-Tran instead of a contractor, Carillo adds, “It’s absolutely worth the expense.”

Testimony at the WRB meeting indicated that many of these problems at LIFT are caused by lack of training, limited driver knowledge of their routes ahead of time, and general mismanagement.

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The WRB is expected to write a report based on the meeting by the end of June, which can then be used to draw more attention to the problem. Until then, drivers will keep the pressure on First Transit—they’re even considering a strike.

According to passengers, LIFT’s systemic issues have prevented riders from getting a job, going to school, or socializing. Serra says the lack of accessibility means “we have small lives that are difficult, and they don’t need to be.”