Mobility-impaired BRTA users say strike 'making it impossible to be independent'

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PITTSFIELD — For the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and bus drivers, the ongoing strike is about money, and Brian Fitzpatrick said he's "sympathetic" to that.

But for Fitzpatrick, a 42-year-old quadriplegic — and others living with disabilities — limiting public transportation is stripping away their independence.

"Yes, the drivers deserve more money, but they also have to consider the way the strike affects people like me," Fitzpatrick said Tuesday, in an interview at his Pittsfield apartment.

Drivers of the BRTA's paratransit buses — they are on-call vans that transport individuals who are mobility-impaired — have been on strike since Dec. 3. While the agency has contracted workers to drive the vans while the employees strike, service has been unreliable for the past week, Fitzpatrick said.

Being wheelchair-bound, Fitzpatrick uses the vans three to four times a week, whether it's to get to an appointment, the grocery store, church or even his parents' house.

Last week, Fitzpatrick made several routine calls requesting service. One day, he ordered a van for 9:30 a.m. so he could go grocery shopping with his home care aid, but the driver had arrived and left before the scheduled time, leaving Fitzpatrick stranded at his home. Another day, Fitzpatrick tried to make an appointment for a ride to an event at the Morningside Community School, but he was told there wasn't a van available.

On Sunday, the vans were only transporting individuals to essential medical appointments, so, Fitzpatrick missed church.

"This is really making it impossible to be independent," he said. "It's not necessarily going to happen to me, but you're going to have a lot of really depressed people if they're not able to leave their homes."

And it's not just about making it to pre-scheduled appointments; knowing that a ride might not be there when you want to go somewhere is emotionally straining, he said.

Knowing little about the negotiations between the drivers' union and the BRTA, it is impossible to know when life will return to normal, he said.

Fitzpatrick spends every Christmas at his parents' house, about 4 miles across the city, and already is anticipating that the strike will affect holiday bus service.

If so, contracting a private ambulance service to take him to his parents' house for Christmas will cost $88.

Paratransit bus tickets cost $2 to $7.50 a ride, he said.

"They're willing to do this," he said of the ambulance service. "But the question is whether I can afford it."

The work stoppage followed a contentious contract dispute between the BRTA and union officials, who rejected the company's latest offer. While the contract is limited to paratransit drivers, fixed-route service also has been affected, because bus drivers share the union and won't cross the picket line.

One of the areas that buses are not servicing during the strike is North Adams, where 25-year-old Robert Wehry is a student at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

The Pittsfield resident, who has high-functioning autism, uses the regular bus service to get to classes three times a week.

But for the past week, Wehry's mother, whom he lives with, and college faculty have shifted their schedules in order to ensure that he has a ride to school. Now, it's time to register for next semester. If the strike continues into January — with his mother returning to work full time — and the bus service remains unpredictable, Wehry fears that he will have to take a leave of absence from the college, which could affect his health insurance.

As a full-time student, Wehry qualifies for MassHealth, which covers the medication he needs. He is concerned that if he leaves school, his medication won't be covered by an alternative insurance company.

"This is now life-changing," Wehry said Tuesday.

Wehry spends about $250 a semester in bus fares to get to college, and his mother, Charlene, said she has been unsuccessful at trying to get a credit for the time that the drivers are striking. While Wehry will never have his own driver's license, he doesn't qualify for the paratransit service, which is reserved for those who are mobility-impaired, Charlene Wehry said.

BRTA Administrator Robert Malnati and union officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In the previous contract offer, which the union rejected Dec. 2, the BRTA proposed a 16 percent hourly wage increase for full-time drivers and 19.6 percent for part-timers. In addition, the three-year deal would give operators more paid time off and "other allowances."

Union leaders have said that the percentage increase might look large, but the pay hikes puts some drivers' wages just above the state's new minimum wage of $12, which isn't sufficient.

With frustrated constituents reaching out daily, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and state Sen. Adam Hinds have been in contact with the BRTA and union officials.

"I believe that when it comes to wages, they are, I think, pretty close and that they could solve this," said Farley-Bouvier, who has knowledge of the negotiations. "We are certainly communicating with the BRTA, the executive director, on what calls we're getting and pushing as much as we can to get people together to get this solved."

Hinds said that the union is fighting a battle for what most people seek: a living wage.

"Transportation is so central to the region and what we need to get right so that we can all do well," Hinds said Tuesday. "Especially when we're talking about paratransit, it even amplifies its importance."

Hinds, who is working on five initiatives at the Statehouse to address public transportation needs in the region, said he hopes that both sides can come together in a "timely manner" to resolve the dispute.

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


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