Just before 6 a.m. on Aug. 9, Iesha Conway felt something bite her back. Then the stinging sensation moved to her arm. She had just started her first ride of the day picking up people with disabilities as part of the state’s MobilityLink system.
After arriving at her destination, she saw marks all over parts of her body.
“I looked in the rearview mirror, and my arm was torn up from bedbugs,” said Conway.
Conway and her colleagues said that since late last year bedbugs have been a consistent problem on the vans owned by MV, one of four private companies that contract with the Maryland Transit Administration to provide paratransit service.
MV and the drivers believe that customers are bringing the bugs on board, which burrow into the vans’ seats, inadvertently spreading them to drivers and fellow passengers.
“We’ve had drivers that have taken them [bedbugs] home and had to throw away furniture; we’ve had drivers that have been bitten and gone to the hospital,” said Raenelle Cole, a MobilityLink driver employed by MV and an organizer with the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Mobility Link workers. “We had one driver that was pregnant and took it home, and she is sleeping on the floor because she had to throw her mattress away.”
For some employees, the bites are just the entry wound to one of many issues that union organizers have brought to the bosses at MV, the contractor that employs the largest number of drivers, mechanics and supervisors working MobilityLink. A nearly yearlong contract negotiation between the company and the union has gotten more intense, and organizers say that if a worker-friendly deal isn’t worked out, drivers may soon strike, leaving the elderly and people with disabilities stranded.
A spokesperson for MV said in an emailed statement that the company takes all employee health and safety reports “very seriously,” adding that “without knowing which individuals carry bedbugs or denying individuals access to board our vehicles, bedbugs can only be managed, not prevented.”
Once a report of an infestation comes in, the company said, the vehicle is “promptly treated, in alignment with established safety standards.”
Cole acknowledged that MV is taking sanitation measures. Once treated, the vans are supposed to sit for 48-72 hours, but some drivers told The Baltimore Banner that they’ve witnessed vans go out for service only hours after returning to the Bush Street hub with reports of an infestation.
More concerning, one driver said, is that most employees are unaware of the protocols. A lack of transparency has left drivers climbing into vans not knowing if bedbugs are there.
Veronica Battisti, senior director of communications and marketing for the MTA, said in an emailed statement that her agency places “paramount importance on the safety and well-being of its passengers, employees, and contractors,” and are actively monitoring bedbug incidents.
Rob Wohl, an organizer with the union, says that the crawling critters aren’t the only thing that have creeped into contract discussions. The union has been pushing MV to raise the starting wage for drivers from $20 an hour, and the bedbug outbreak has only made them push harder.
“What the union is hoping to see is parity between drivers in Baltimore and drivers who do the same work in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, Washington, D.C.,” said Wohl. “There’s a pretty big gap, we want to close that gap. And we want people to just be able to do their jobs.”
As of last week, Cole said, the company was willing to raise the starting wage to $22 an hour, and then $23 an hour in a driver’s second year. She called the proposal “definitely better” than previous ones.
“It makes us … not smile, but like a half grin, you know OK that’s nice, but we definitely deserve a little bit more,” said Cole, who does think that the company is moving in what she refers to as “the right direction.”
MV referred to the ongoing talks with the union as “good-faith negotiations,” adding that the company “remains committed to that process, with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.”
On its website, MV said that in 2018 it was operating roughly 200 contracts across 30 states, posting more than $1.3 billion in annual revenue.
Battisti said that the MTA is “closely monitoring the negotiations and has strongly encouraged both parties to engage in a collaborative dialogue to reach a fair and equitable resolution.”
Workers are also pushing for better benefits, and hope that MV will soon come to the table with better health care options.
Wohl says that just under 10% of drivers have enrolled in the health plan currently offered by MV, and even fewer are contributing to an available 401(k) retirement plan, either because they can’t afford to or they didn’t even realize they could pay into one. The union says that MV does contribute a small amount to employee retirement plans, but only if and after employees contribute themselves. They want to see MV make contributions no mater what.
It’s not just pay and benefits driving discontent. Cole and her fellow drivers have other safety concerns, calling the van fleet “outdated.” She said that faulty directions from the “ranger” — the vans’ onboard navigation system — have contributed to late pickups.
“It makes it difficult for operators to do their jobs efficiently and effectively sometimes because we do have some drivers that aren’t familiar with our region,” said Cole, adding that some drivers have even bought their own newer navigation systems. They aren’t allowed to use cellphones for navigation. “And the ranger again will take you all around the world before it really puts you where you need to be,” Cole said.
Earlier this summer, a Department of Justice investigation that began in late 2021 concluded that a variety of issues with Mobility, including poor on-time performance, caused the service to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
‘I love what I do’
In response to the DOJ findings, MTA Administrator Holly Arnold said that hiring drivers back post-pandemic had been a key challenge that led to the dip in on-time performance metrics in 2021. The MTA worked with its contractors to raise wages at the time to incentivize more hires.
Since MV came back on board in February last year, Mobility has reported better on-time performance numbers, reaching above 90% every month since July 2022, the latest data available.
Keeping drivers is another story.
“Oh, they’re hiring plenty of people — the problem is retention,” said Cole. She said that quick, shoddy training led to some drivers being let go, and that workers can’t make ends meet on current pay and benefits.
“I mean, $20 is a good starting place, but I’ve been here 15 months — how long am I supposed to work without a pay raise, without sustainable benefits?” Cole said.
The union’s most recent member survey found that 56% of 132 respondents worked a second job to cover expenses. Union representatives also found that the March census — one year into MV’s contract — indicated a 126% turnover rate. That means that more people left their jobs at MV than the hundreds of initial hires.
The company attributed the turnover to “unprecedented hiring in a short period of time,” saying that it had to bring 500 employees on board over the course of 100 days at the start of 2022 to “build the division’s operations from the ground up.” They noted that the turnover rate has gotten better in 2023, and that retention will continue to be a “critical focus.”
Referring to herself as an “older driver,” Cole said that she would rather find a job that “works for her” and stick with it a while than bounce around. She thinks her fellow drivers would stick around too if the pay and benefits were better.
Heather Royal certainly would. She said that many drivers — including her — want to do the job because they think it’s important. She finds meaning in helping vulnerable, often forgotten members of society get to where they need to go.
“I love what I do,” said Royal, who added that she left a higher-paying driving job based out of Washington, D.C., because she wanted to do something more meaningful. And she and Cole agree that the job is hard, often requiring more than just driving.
“In this job, you’re not just an operator/driver — you’re a caregiver, you’re an assistant — you might have to be a counselor, it just depends on the passenger,” said Cole.
And though Cole, Wohl and others are hopeful that a new contract is close, they aren’t ruling out the possibility of a worker strike. One driver who spoke with The Baltimore Banner said that at least 100 of their coworkers are actively calling for it.
And they recognize that the issues go beyond just their own wellbeing and staying bedbug-free. “The real losers for this are the people we’re supposed to be transporting to work, to their doctors’ appointments, to renew their certification for disability coverage,” Cole said.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.
This story has been updated to include the correct name of the Maryland Transit Administration.