Bad Green Jobs

The big launch of a New York bike-share program is marred by wage theft accusations.

Sarah JaffeMay 27, 2013

A Capital Bikeshare rack in Washington, D.C. (Zach Copley/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Today, New York City launch­es the largest bicy­cle shar­ing pro­gram in the coun­try, CitiBike. It will be run by the com­pa­ny, Alta Bicy­cle Share, Inc., that is respon­si­ble for Wash­ing­ton, D.C.‘s flag­ship pro­gram, Cap­i­tal Bike­share. Based on a Euro­pean mod­el used in Paris and Lon­don, the pro­gram is tout­ed as a green­er, health­i­er form of pub­lic transportation.

'They are creating green jobs, which is great, but they need to play by the rules,” says Swenson. 'It's because of the D.C. program and because of the work that people like me did that they've been able to secure contracts in other cities. We don't want to see the undermining of labor law to be part of the example that Alta carries through the rest of the country.'

But Cap­i­tal’s work­ers have a few prob­lems with that image.

Samuel Swen­son says he was excit­ed when he was hired at Cap­i­tal Bike­share in the sum­mer of 2011. He and his new col­leagues were enthu­si­as­tic about bicy­cles and alter­na­tive trans­porta­tion, he told In These Times. We helped sell the pro­gram as much as we helped make it work.”

Things quick­ly start­ed to go wrong. Accord­ing to Swen­son, he was hired with the expec­ta­tion that he would become a full-time bicy­cle mechan­ic and that he would receive health ben­e­fits, but the ben­e­fits did­n’t mate­ri­al­ize. The ware­house where he and the hand­ful of oth­er mechan­ics worked was housed next to a con­crete mill in a Super­fund site. The hard work and the sil­i­ca dust from the con­crete made him con­cerned about when his health­care would kick in. When he nev­er got a sat­is­fac­to­ry answer from the com­pa­ny, he began research­ing Alta’s con­tract with the city.

I found out that I was enti­tled to health ben­e­fits, based on fed­er­al law, that my employ­er had agreed to, that I had been paid less than they had agreed [in their con­tract] to pay me, again accord­ing to this fed­er­al law,” he says.

Accord­ing to the McNa­ma­ra-O’Hara Ser­vice Con­tract Act (SCA), con­trac­tors and sub­con­trac­tors with fed­er­al and D.C. agen­cies must pay their work­ers the pre­vail­ing wages and ben­e­fits in their local­i­ty. Alta’s 2010 con­tract with the Dis­trict Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (pro­vid­ed to In These Times by Swen­son) explic­it­ly states that they are bound by the wage deter­mi­na­tions made by the SCA. Accord­ing to that con­tract, Bicy­cle Repair­ers” should be paid $14.43 an hour, plus either $3.35 an hour or $580.66 a month in health & wel­fare” ben­e­fits. They should also receive two weeks of paid vaca­tion and paid fed­er­al hol­i­days. The SCA also cov­ers part-time work­ers — under the act, they should be paid the same wages and receive ben­e­fits appro­pri­ate for their time spent at work.

Swen­son says that while he received a raise to $15 before leav­ing the com­pa­ny in 2012, he was paid $13 an hour ini­tial­ly and nev­er got the promised health­care benefits.

The Cap­i­tal Bike­share work­ers’ com­plaints come at a time when fed­er­al con­trac­tors are under pub­lic scruti­ny for dodg­ing the pay require­ments of the SCA. Last week, hun­dreds of low-wage work­ers whose employ­ers are fund­ed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment took to the streets of D.C. on strike for bet­ter wages. As Josh Eidel­son report­ed at The Nation, those work­ers demand­ed stronger action from Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to ensure that fed­er­al dol­lars aren’t fund­ing pover­ty-wage jobs.

An OSHA problem

Bernie Smith was one of the first employ­ees at Cap­i­tal Bike­share; he helped assem­ble the orig­i­nal bicy­cles before the pro­gram launched. For that, he was paid by the bicy­cle rather than by the hour. When the pro­gram launched, he came on part-time as a mechan­ic, paid $15 an hour and no ben­e­fits. For him, the biggest prob­lem was­n’t the com­pen­sa­tion, it was the con­di­tions. In addi­tion to the sil­i­ca dust, which he says the com­pa­ny did even­tu­al­ly mit­i­gate by mov­ing the work­ers to a dif­fer­ent build­ing, he tells In These Times that he found a string of safe­ty issues, includ­ing unsafe use of pow­er tools and work­sta­tions in close prox­im­i­ty to one anoth­er, that man­age­ment did not seem inter­est­ed in addressing.”

I’m a 25-year-plus vet­er­an of the bicy­cle indus­try, I’ve been run­ning shops before in Penn­syl­va­nia and also in DC, fair­ly aware of what the OSHA require­ments would be,” Smith said. I’m over 50, I’m an ex-para­troop­er, I have low­er-back prob­lems and feet prob­lems. After the first month of work­ing there I request­ed to have bet­ter stand­ing mats. It took months and months, [then] there was one stand­ing mat that came in. My imme­di­ate super­vi­sor took it and put it under his stand to test it out’ to see if he want­ed to buy any more.”

Swen­son says he, too, made a com­plaint about work­ing con­di­tions that went unheed­ed. One day I took pho­tos of these two work bench­es with 40-pound vis­es on them, that were near­ly col­laps­ing. It’s a rather dan­ger­ous thing to put a wheel on a 40-pound vise, crank down on it, and then have the whole table kind of kneel over,” he said. It looked like a mat­ter of time before it fell on one of us. They would­n’t do any­thing about it, so I took pho­tos and told the gen­er­al man­ag­er that this was an OSHA problem.”

Instead of address­ing the prob­lem, he says, the com­pa­ny took away his key and secu­ri­ty access code, telling him that he need­ed close super­vi­sion.” Before, he’d been free to work on his own time as long as the work got done.

So Swen­son called the Depart­ment of Labor in June of 2012. At first, he recalls, he had trou­ble get­ting them to take his com­plaints seri­ous­ly, but he kept push­ing and even­tu­al­ly got a call back from an inves­ti­ga­tor in the Wage and Hour Divi­sion. The depart­ment did not return a call from In These Times request­ing com­ment, but did con­firm to the Wash­ing­ton Post ear­li­er this month that they had opened an inves­ti­ga­tion into his complaints.

Swen­son is still wait­ing for a deter­mi­na­tion from the Depart­ment of Labor. I think Alta is doing a real­ly good thing from an envi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tive, and they are cre­at­ing green jobs, which is great, but they need to play by the rules,” Swen­son says. It’s because of the D.C. pro­gram and because of the work that peo­ple like me did that they’ve been able to secure con­tracts in oth­er cities. We don’t want to see the under­min­ing of labor law to be part of the exam­ple that Alta car­ries through the rest of the country.”

A ground­break­ing’ program

While advo­cates cheer and politi­cians con­grat­u­late them­selves for a new envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly ini­tia­tive, it’s worth ask­ing if a green” trans­porta­tion sys­tem built with under­paid work­ers in unhealthy con­di­tions is tru­ly sustainable.

Accord­ing to Alta’s con­tract with the D.C. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, The pur­pose of this bike-shar­ing pro­gram is to improve the envi­ron­men­tal impact of trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture with­in the Dis­trict by reduc­ing emis­sions, and increas­ing the num­ber and type of trans­porta­tion options avail­able to the pub­lic for com­mut­ing, shop­ping, recre­at­ing and exercising.”

And New York bicy­cling advo­cates have called CitiBike groundbreak­ing” and said that it will have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the city’s pub­lic trans­porta­tion, allow­ing peo­ple the option of bik­ing rather than dri­ving or tak­ing the bus or subway.

That may or may not be true — sur­veys of Cap­i­tal Bike­share users in Wash­ing­ton have found that not every­one is tak­ing advan­tage. Users of D.C.‘s pro­gram are younger, whiter, and more male than the city’s pop­u­la­tion. In New York, CitiBikes’ loca­tions in Low­er Man­hat­tan and prici­er neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn mean that they’re less acces­si­ble to the city’s low­er-income res­i­dents, who tend to live fur­ther out.

But Cap­i­tal Bike­share is pop­u­lar. Users report­ed annu­al sav­ings in trans­porta­tion costs — short rides are free for those who pay a year­ly mem­ber­ship fee — and they’ve request­ed more loca­tions for more access.

The bikes, large bulky cruis­ers” with three gears and a bas­ket, are stored at solar-pow­ered racks around the city and can be returned to any one of the sys­tem’s loca­tions, mak­ing them ide­al for one-way trips. Users can pur­chase an annu­al mem­ber­ship or a tem­po­rary pass with a swipe of a cred­it card. Light truck dri­vers go around the city pick­ing up the bikes that need repair and rebal­anc­ing” the racks — mak­ing sure each has bikes and extra spaces for returns.

Unlike D.C.‘s Cap­i­tal Bike­share, New York’s CitiBike pro­gram does­n’t receive gov­ern­ment funds — not yet, any­way. The city’s trans­porta­tion com­mis­sion­er, Janette Sadik-Khan, has said that she’s active­ly seek­ing fed­er­al fund­ing to help expand the pro­gram out­side of the cur­rent loca­tions in Man­hat­tan and Brooklyn. 

At the moment, it’s com­plete­ly under­writ­ten by CitiBank and Mas­ter­Card, who coughed up $41 mil­lion and $6.5 mil­lion, respec­tive­ly, for the right to have their names front and cen­ter on the bikes.

That adver­tis­ing alone has cre­at­ed ten­sion; res­i­dents in Clin­ton Hill and Fort Greene in Brook­lyn took to past­ing signs on the bikes that say, Res­i­den­tial Land­mark Blocks are Not for Adver­tis­ing or Com­mer­cial Activity.”

The under­writ­ers receive no prof­its, but the city says it will share any prof­its with Alta Bicy­cle Share.

Because the bikes are com­plete­ly fund­ed by a cor­po­rate spon­sor (leav­ing aside the ques­tion, for the moment, of how it looks to have the city part­ner with a bank that kicked off the dereg­u­la­to­ry bonan­za that caused the finan­cial cri­sis and has been accused of help­ing drug lords laun­der mon­ey), the work­ers for CitiBike will not be sub­ject to the city’s liv­ing wage law for city-fund­ed jobs, which would require a min­i­mum pay rate of $10.20 an hour with ben­e­fits or $11.75 an hour with­out benefits.

Chica­go, too, has a con­tract with Alta Bicy­cle Share to cre­ate a bike-shar­ing pro­gram, which will be fund­ed by $18 mil­lion in fed­er­al grants ear­marked for reduc­ing air pol­lu­tion, along with $3 mil­lion from the city. But Chicago’s pro­gram has been stalled, not by tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, but by claims from a rival com­pa­ny, Bike Chica­go, that Alta’s con­nec­tion to that city’s trans­porta­tion com­mis­sion­er, Gabe Klein, got them the job. (He once worked for them as a con­sul­tant). Josh Squire of Bike Chica­go told the Chica­go Sun-Times that his pro­pos­al had low­er start-up costs and annu­al oper­at­ing costs than Alta’s, yet he lost the bid. The city’s inspec­tor gen­er­al looked into the claims, but the City Coun­cil gave Alta the go-ahead to oper­ate the sys­tem through 2027 as the inves­ti­ga­tion continued.

Alta Bicy­cle Share did not return a request for com­ment on the jobs that will be cre­at­ed in New York as a result of the CitiBike program.

Coun­cil scrutiny

New York City Coun­cil mem­ber Leti­tia James, whose dis­trict will host some of the first CitiBike sta­tions, said that mem­bers of the city gov­ern­ment have not yet dis­cussed the wages and ben­e­fits for the pro­gram’s employ­ees, but she will be doing so as a result of the con­cerns of the D.C. workers.

I’ll be ask­ing the admin­is­tra­tion to pro­vide me some back­ground infor­ma­tion on the wages and ben­e­fit pack­ages of the work­ers, and will be ral­ly­ing my col­leagues in the pro­gres­sive cau­cus to join me in cham­pi­oning this issue,” she told In These Times.

Smith, who spent many years work­ing in small inde­pen­dent bicy­cle shops, said that the work­ers at Cap­i­tal Bike­share did not receive the ben­e­fits of work­ing for a large, well-fund­ed enti­ty. The pow­er and the author­i­ty and the finan­cial back­ing of the cor­po­ra­tion did not serve its work­ers well. It served some­thing else well.”

Swen­son and Smith remain believ­ers in the pro­gram; they just want to see it do the right thing for past, present, and future employees.

I think the right thing for Alta to do is pay up on the back wages and ben­e­fits that they’ve effec­tive­ly stolen from us and to set an exam­ple for this new indus­try by apply­ing Ser­vice Con­tract Act-lev­el liv­ing wages and health and wel­fare ben­e­fits to all the pro­grams that they’re run­ning,” Swen­son said. Cre­at­ing green jobs while under­min­ing hard-won Amer­i­can labor laws is ulti­mate­ly not in the spir­it of cre­at­ing a new sus­tain­able econ­o­my. It’s the same old exploita­tive attitude.”

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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