Ninus Hopkins worked as a Solid Ground paratransit driver for more than three decades.
It’s not the type of work that will make money, and as he sees it, an impossible undertaking for someone not doing it out of love or care for the people.
“Love or not though, we deserve a living wage,” the recent retiree said.
About 150 Solid Ground paratransit drivers, labor union leaders and supporters gathered Thursday afternoon in South Park to rally for better wages — a 13% increase over a three-year period — as contract negotiations enter the eighth month.
Leaders are also calling on MV Transportation, which says it is the largest privately owned passenger transportation contracting services firm in the country, to boost drivers’ pay with money received under the American Rescue Plan, noting that drivers worked on the front lines during the worst of the pandemic and continue to provide critical access for some of society’s most vulnerable people.
MV Transportation subcontracts with Solid Ground for King County Metro to provide paratransit services for seniors and people with disabilities. MV Transportation drivers received up to $8,000 under the American Rescue Plan, but Solid Ground drivers did not receive that, said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 President Ken Price. Drivers got a $500 payment last month, he said.
“This greed is inexcusable,” he said.
King County Metro declined to comment Thursday evening. MV Transportation did not immediately respond to inquiries Thursday.
The paratransit drivers have been working without a contract since February.
The hope is King County Metro will give MV a good contract that will then provide Solid Ground paratransit employees a living wage or for them to “bring Solid Ground in-house” as county employees, Price told the crowd on Thursday.
The union is also advocating for better medical benefits. Right now, employees working at least 35 hours a week for a quarter are eligible for medical benefits, but only for themselves, Price said. It costs an additional $282 to add a family member, Price said.
Wages for the paratransit drivers in King County start at $18.94 an hour and in five years reach the maximum wage of about $25 an hour, Price said.
Solid Ground paratransit drivers were among the first to take COVID-19 patients in Kirkland to hospitals two years ago and have been front-line workers ever since, Price said.
Paratransit drivers did not strike during the height of the global pandemic because they understood they were essential, said John Costa, the union’s international president.
“We didn’t work from home,” Costa said. “We went out there and risked our lives.”
Some died, leaving behind families and children, Costa said.
Workers deserve respect for what they do, Costa said, promising that if the paratransit drivers decide to go on strike they will be backed and funded.
Washington State Labor Council President Larry Brown addressed the crowd, emphasizing the power of unions to push for a collective goal.
“There’s lots of praise. They call you a hero, but what do you get for a raise? Zero. This is wrong,” he said.
Katie Wilson with the Transit Riders Union expressed solidarity with the drivers, who she said often work two jobs to support themselves and their families.
The money large corporations make won’t trickle down to the workers unless it is demanded, Wilson said. The Transit Riders Union is leading a campaign in Tukwila to raise the minimum wage to $19.
“It’s great progress … but not a lot in this economy,” Wilson said.