Drivers for Metro Mobility, the company that provides transportation to the elderly and chronically ill in Palm Beach County, have not received a raise on their $8.50-an-hour jobs for five years.
At one time, they hoped to get a 25-cents-an-hour raise every year for the five years of Metro’s $90 million contract with Palm Beach County, but the company has refused to bargain with the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit, for much of the past five years.
The union took its case to the National Labor Relations Board, which agreed Metro was in violation. The 11th Circuit Court in 2011 ruled that Metro was in contempt of the NLRB. From 2008 to now, there have been a few conversations, but no negotiations, said Local 1577 President Dwight Mattingly.
Suddenly, things are different.
“They’re calling me every week now,” Mattingly said.
Two things have changed.
- The NLRB is poised to levy fines and order Metro to pay back wages that might exceed $1 million, Mattingly said.
- Metro has less than two weeks to resolve numerous allegations of safety and service violations of its contract with Palm Beach County, or the county commission has the option of canceling the contract. If that happens, Palm Tran, the public transportation arm of county government, has the option to put the contract out for bid again, only a year after Metro took over as sole provider of paratransit services.
Brett Schneider, a Fort Lauderdale labor attorney, was hired by Metro to take over the NLRB case in November. He said he and the union had a face-to-face sit-down at the end of May and plan another this month. He said he could not discuss details of the negotiations.
“We are working very hard to find a mutually agreeable solution to all issues,” said Schneider.” We are optimistic that it can be done.”
July 16 deadline
After serving as one of three contractors providing paratransit services for Palm Beach County, Metro won a five-year, $90 million contract to be Palm Tran Connection’s sole provider in June 2012 and took over as sole provider of the transit service for the elderly and chronically ill in August.
From the day Metro took over, Palm Tran officials say their phone lines were swamped with four times the usual number of complaints about lateness, no-show vans and other schedule failures. The county also said Metro had violated its contract by not providing enough vehicles or enough drivers, not adequately reporting accidents and not meeting safety standards, and it fined Metro more than $1.4 million for violations from August 2012 to February and continues to fine Metro for the months since February. Metro’s lawyers protested the fines and asked for a 24-month extension to pay.
The county commission has given Metro until July 16 to fix the problems.
Mobility Transit, another company owned by Cullan Meathe, owes more than $250,000 in fines to the city of Augusta, Ga., also for alleged contract violations. Augusta terminated Mobility’s contract this year. Mobility sued Augusta.
Two decades ago, when Meathe was the owner of a large limousine service in Detroit, he advocated good pay as the way to get the best drivers. At the time, his company was the largest of its kind in Michigan.
“Pay your chauffeurs 20 percent gratuities and pay them a dollar more per hour than the competition,” he told an interviewer for a trade magazine. “That way, you get the cream of the crop and they come knocking on your door.”
Metro pays $8.50 an hour to drivers, who must be specially trained before they begin working with people in wheelchairs and the frail elderly. According to the NLRB documents, about 30 percent of Palm Tran Connections riders use it for medical reasons.
In April, the son of a 93-year-old Palm Tran Connection rider sued Metro for wrongful death, alleging that his father died after being dropped by a Metro driver.
Meathe told county commissioners last year it is hard for his company to find and train drivers capable of doing a good job.
According to an NLRB ruling, Meathe’s company abruptly reduced the working hours of Palm Tran Connection drivers in 2008, in some cases from an almost unlimited amount to less than 40 hours a week. Metro representatives told the NLRB that the amount of business had declined, but the NLRB ruled that Metro failed to prove it.
According to Palm Tran, the number of rides provided by Palm Tran Connection hit an all-time high of 946,917 in 2007, then fell off but has increased each year since 2010 to hit 862,754 in 2012. This year’s monthly average of 74,067 is the highest since 2007’s 78,910.
In the opinion of the NLRB, when a company reduces work hours unilaterally, it is a drastic attack on workers’ economic security.
“It is difficult to think of a more dramatic change for employees, other than perhaps discharge,” wrote a three-member NLRB panel in 2011.
Addressing county commissioners in October at the height of customer complaints about lateness and no shows, Meathe said he had difficulty acquiring enough vehicles to cover routes. He blamed timing and his competitor. The timing problem was that his company was attempting to buy vans at the end of the model year, which extended the length of time it took to build them. Properly fitting the vans with lifts and other special equipment takes at least 90 days.
Meathe, a former Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Michigan, also said that MV Transportation, the company with which he had previously shared the Palm Tran Connection routes, sold him lemons — vehicles in disrepair, including some with blown engines. He added that MV then refused to stay past the end of its contract to help Metro cover the routes during start-up last August. MV representatives later told The Palm Beach Post that they stayed through the end of their contract with Palm Tran Connection and had no obligation to provide vehicles or help after that.
In memos to Palm Tran Director Chuck Cohen, Palm Tran Connection Director Ron Jones wrote this year that he doubted Metro would replace the vehicles in a timely fashion, based on past buying patterns.
Meathe’s company had similar problems keeping enough vehicles on the road in 2008 when it was Palm Beach Metro Transportation and one of three companies providing paratransit for the county, according to the NLRB report.
Palm Beach Metro Transportation has ceased to exist as a corporation since then. Its last corporate report was filed on April 26, 2011. Palm Beach Metro was replaced by Metro Mobility, which was incorporated July 7, 2011. Both companies listed Cullan Meathe as their manager and both were located at 1635 Meathe Drive in West Palm Beach.
The NLRB has said that when a company changes names, but its officers are the same, it is considered the same entity.
“(Metro) Director (Robert) Glaeser stated (Metro) started with a fleet of new Ford diesel vehicles but ‘system failures,’ ‘brake failures’ and ‘constantly overheat(ing)’ cause problems for (Metro),” the NLRB report said.
In some cases, Glaeser told the NLRB, Metro needed two drivers for one vehicle: one to drive and another to stay with a disabled vehicle waiting for a tow truck. From August to October 2007, Metro replaced 38 vehicles. The rest were swapped out in 2008, the NLRB report says.
In a memo this year, Jones, the Palm Tran Connection director, told his boss, Palm Tran DirectorCohen, that Metro was not ordering vehicles fast enough to be able to rotate out other vehicles that had too much mileage or had been on the road too long.
“He’s got to get 30 more vehicles before July 15,” said Mattingly. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Back wages not forthcoming
Despite the NLRB ruling, it’s still not clear when the Metro drivers will get their back wages.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Mattingly. “(Metro has) already been found guilty that they owe this, by the 11th Circuit Court. The court asked the NLRB to calculate the exact amount, but Metro can say we disagree with the way it was calculated. That is now going to a hearing, so it can be another two or three years before they settle.”
“We met a couple of times, but now they really want to settle to make themselves look good to the commissioners,” said Mattingly. But he fears that Metro will ask county commissioners for more money to pay back wages.
On June 11, Cohen told commissioners that Palm Tran needed $1.2 million more than last year, because of ridership increases.
“I told (Metro), ‘Hey, you know what? Promise us in writing that if you do get more money it will go to the workers,’” said Mattingly.
Mattingly said Meathe owes his drivers about $1.6 million in back wages. Mattingly expects him to dispute that, further pushing back the date when drivers could see raises.
“He’s already told us he’s not going to pay that,” said Mattingly. “He believes he’s going to win that case. He’s trying to settle all this. We don’t believe he ever will.”