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Feds Investigating Alta Bicycle Share Over DC Pay Dispute

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 - 03:00 PM

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After Capital Bikeshare employees complained about unfair wage practices, the Department of Labor opened an investigation into Alta Bicycle Share -- the company operating bike share systems in New York, D.C., and Boston.

Sixteen current and former employees of D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare are circulating a petition asking Alta for back pay and benefits. The effort has been taken up by labor groups -- most notably the AFL-CIO, which is urging its members to sign the petition. Now organizers have plans to deliver the (electronic) signatures to D.C.'s Department of Transportation (DDOT) on Wednesday.

Samuel Swenson is a former mechanic at the D.C. bike share. When he started at Alta, Swenson said he was making $13 an hour. But according to the Service Contract Act, which governs contracts between the federal or local D.C. governments and private companies, Alta was underpaying Swenson.

The SCA says that bicycle mechanics must be paid at least $14.43 hourly. The contract also promises benefits for all employees, at a minimum of $3.35/hour. Swenson quit after about a year at Capital Bikeshare, citing poor working conditions and frustration with his supervisors. He says he eventually got a raise to $15 an hour, but that he never got  any benefits.

“If you total up the wages and the health and welfare benefit I'm entitled to in the contract, I'm owed about $5,000 for a year’s work,” Swenson said.

Swenson said when he asked management about the discrepancies in pay, they brushed him off. He added one of his bosses told him “you’re probably right about the contract, but Alta’s lawyers will find a way out of it.”

Swenson believes Alta is doing good work, but he says the company has to start treating its employees with respect. “I'm an environmentalist and I'm a bike enthusiast,” he said. “I'm hopeful that Alta can be different and take a lead in the Green Collar economy and treat workers right, and extend sustainability to workers and their families, not just the bikes they fix.”

Kermit Demus is a rebalancer in D.C. That means he helps move the bicycles between the stations, when some get too full and others too empty. It’s hard work, he said.

Demus said he started at $13 an hour too. He says he’s making $15.50 an hour now, but under Alta’s contract with D.C.’s Department of Transportation, he says should have been making $17.90 the whole time. And like Swenson, Demus said hasn’t received any of the benefits he was promised.

“To me personally, it feels like modern day slavery,” he said. “It’s raining today, if I were to fall off and get hurt, I wouldn’t have any benefits.”  

Alta will be running the bike sharing program that hits San Francisco and Silicon Valley this summer. Because it’s not under the same federal contract that exists between Alta and the D.C. bikeshare, Alta won’t be bound by the Service Contract Act in the Bay Area. But Kermit Demus said he’s concerned for the future workers in San Francisco.

“If they do it in DC, the second city Alta started in, there’s no doubt in my mind they will do it elsewhere,” he said, referring to the company underpaying their workers.

Alta is responsible for Boston’s Hubway bike share, and it has the contract for the newly-launched Citi Bike in New York, the nation's largest bike share system. Back in March, Alta signed a contract with San Francisco and five other Bay Area cities to run the Bay Area’s first bike share that’s slated to open in August.  

On their website, Alta acknowledges the Department of Labor has requested information from them for a federal wage investigation and says they have provided it, saying “We fully value our work force and are doing everything we can to ensure that we are in compliance.” Alta did not return requests for comment.                     

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