Disruptions irk riders on second day of BRTA strike

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PITTSFIELD — On the second day of a drivers strike, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority ran a limited bus schedule Tuesday, and patience ran thin among riders who rely on the service.

Around 10 a.m. at the Intermodal Transportation Center on Columbus Avenue, men and women trying to make their way to the Berkshire Crossing shopping center were finding it difficult.

Vivian Singh of Pittsfield rides the bus weekdays to get to her job at Walmart.

Usually, she catches the bus at Berkshire Medical Center or Springside Avenue, but Tuesday morning, she had to leave for her shift more than an hour early so she could walk for about 20 minutes to the station downtown. Overall, the revised schedule added about an hour to her commute.

As for how Singh is going to get home, she said she has "no idea."

"I may have to rely on a co-worker or something," she said.

The strike, which began at 5 a.m. Monday, stems from an ongoing contract dispute between the BRTA's 15 paratransit drivers and a First Transit subsidiary, Paratransit Management of the Berkshires, which has operated the BRTA's on-call bus service since July 2016.

The Pittsfield unit of Teamsters 404 represents the BRTA's paratransit and fixed-route drivers, but the latter are already under contract.

On Nov. 5, the union voted to reject a contract offer for the paratransit drivers and authorize a strike to occur on or around Nov. 16. That strike was postponed and mediation resumed after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with union officials telling The Eagle that progress was being made during negotiations.

The BRTA has brought in outside vendors to handle the small on-call vans for mobility-impaired individuals. But with the fixed-route drivers on the sidelines, management was forced to operate a limited regular bus schedule Monday, according to BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati.

On Monday, the limited schedule left Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield and Williamstown without BRTA service, and some sections of Pittsfield and North Adams also saw disruptions. That schedule was tweaked Tuesday in an attempt to address some of the gaps.

Still, city residents Tammie Biemiller and Joanna Downing said they are essentially "homebound" when the buses aren't running on a normal schedule.

They needed to do some shopping at BJ's Wholesale Club on Monday and it cost them $20 each to get there and back.

"I just hope it is resolved in a way that works for everyone, because this is hard," Downing said while standing with her roommate at the bus station. "Especially around this time of the year."

Malnati said Tuesday that he believes the communication is limited to the attorneys from both sides and a federal mediator at this point.

Williamstown, Dalton, Great Barrington, Hinsdale and parts of Pittsfield remain without bus service, he said. Service within Pittsfield is also reduced, he said.

"There are a lot of gaps left," he said. "There are a lot of communities that are not receiving service."

There are four fixed-route buses in service, he said. Malnati said that he has been told that paratransit trips are being met as scheduled.

Victor Santiago, a business agent for the Pittsfield unit of Teamsters Local 404, said that he has reached out to the federal mediator to be in touch with the BRTA. The attorney for the transportation agency hadn't responded by the afternoon, he said.

"We feel for the people in Pittsfield, the people we service; they're the ones paying the price," he said. "I want these guys to be working. You think I enjoy having people out on the street, in the cold, not getting paid?"

But Santiago believes that the BRTA gave them no choice but to strike because the drivers are not being paid livable wages.

The union members have been split into three groups and are working shifts on the picket line, which is located in the Downing Industrial Park, Santiago said.

The members have been blocking the entrance to where the buses are stored for less than a minute as part of the strike, but have been doing so peacefully, he said.

But he said there was one incident in which he accused a driver of nearly striking the union members on the line, forcing them to jump out of the way.

"If this continues, I'm going to have to file a [police] report. We make them wait 25 seconds, 30 seconds tops," Santiago said. "Somebody is going to get hurt."

Malnati said that he checked with the general manager, who spoke to the police officer assigned to the picket line and verified that there was no report made about the alleged incident.

The transit authority runs 48,000 to 50,000 trips a month, Malnati said. Some people take the bus several times a day, while others only take it a few times a week, he said. There is no data on how many individuals are served each day, he said.

Patti Annechiarico, a Dalton resident who relies on the paratransit buses, came to The Eagle newsroom Tuesday morning to demand that the strike come to an end.

"It's just not fair to us," she said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.

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