“And my slogan is progress over perfection right now. And we want to still make sure that we’re making progress going forth. And as I tell my team, always, it’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to it.” — UCAT director Loren Johnson
Grown men, hale and hearty use their sick time to stay off the job. Grown women brought to tears weep openly. Heavy rumblings emanate from the garages of the Ulster County Area Transit (UCAT), and they’re getting harder to ignore.
Pitched at the feet of the freshman director of transportation for Ulster County Loren Johnson, employees allege the creation of a work environment that is becoming toxic.
These susurrations weren’t the reason the director was summoned to the county legislature’s Public Works, Capital Projects and Transportation Committee on the evening of October 4. Reports had been received about a botched rollout: confusing new schedules, maladapted bus routes, buses running late, the absence of an effective outreach campaign to let the riding public know what to expect in a fare-less environment.
Invited to the committee in her capacity as founding member of Kingston Public Transit Riders (now RUTA), Tanya Garment gave her view. “It was a mess today,” said Garment. “People didn’t know where their buses were going and when they would get there.”
According to Garment, who spoke with a UCAT dispatcher, buses fell behind schedule because the new routes took longer to compete than the time allotted. Drivers’ lunch breaks ran late. Each loop was ever later.
UCAT is in a period of significant changes. Director Johnson offered the five-member committee a combination of reasons for blame, primary among them the slow adoption of new bus-route deviations by the bus drivers. He drew a picture of a workforce resistant to change. “We did a major operational rebid,” explained Johnson, referring to the process of assigning shifts irrespective of seniority or personal extenuating circumstances. Based upon their qualifications and their willingness, employees competed against each other for a mix of newly created and previously existing time slots.
“Those new shifts went into effect this weekend past,” explained Johnson. “One of those things that we are seeing here is legacy. A lot of our workforce are used to being on a specific route, forever and a day. Five years, ten years at a time. So part of the things that we are experiencing over the next couple of days and probably this week is drivers getting acclimated to new assignments.”
The chorus of employee complaints had grown loud enough to reach the ear of the chair of the committee, legislator Laura Petit.
“I went to the head of Ulster County Personnel,” said Petit. “Yeah, I asked specifically in two ways because my first term would be ‘hostile work environment,’ but the real legal definition of that is not quite accurate. That’s more making somebody uncomfortable with comments and advances and that type of thing. So then I asked again, has anyone come in and complained about their work environment? And again, I was told no.”
County employees with issues about their work environment who lack faith in the departmental resolution process can take their concerns to county personnel director Dawn Spader.
“Apparently there’s been eight [UCAT employees] now that filed complaints,” said Petit. “And yet I was told nothing.”
One of those employees, Sue Constable, was in the room, watching Johnson chew gum, make his remarks and answer questions.
“I went to Dawn Spader, the head of human resources,” said Constable later. “I talked to her. If it bothers him, he can fire me and I’ll sue him. I’m to the point where I feel like we should be able to sue the county for allowing this to happen to us and to put us in this position.”
Constable’s defiant expressions were unusual. Most employees interviewed for this article requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. They described a workplace environment where everyone was on edge, emotionally stressed from their interactions with the director.
Walking on eggshells
“We’re all walking on eggshells” was how one bus driver interviewed on their route described his work environment. The driver made sure to walk far enough away from the idling bus that the microphones in the bus could no longer pick up the conversation. “The camera can still see our lips,” cautioned the driver.
Constable was until recently a dispatcher for UCAT.
“I loved my position,” says Constable. “I used to dispatch the same position for last five years, from 4:30 to 1:30. He [Johnson] decided he’s going to put it up to a bid, and he says he wanted us to work weekends. The shift I ended up with, I couldn’t work my second job. That pays my rent! We don’t get paid a lot of money.
“He didn’t care. He doesn’t care. He said. ‘You do what you have to do.’ I had to resign from my position just get away from him is what I did. It’s awful. That man has hurt me so bad and turned my life upside down for no goddamn reason.”
Petit said the UCAT workforce was making around $20 an hour, and could make closer to $35 if they moved on to work for a private bus company. “The private companies are desperate,” she said. “Trailways has signs up everywhere. And we already have a labor shortage. Currently we’re short seven people, there should be 33.”
Dispatch and operations coordinator Mike Olivieri is the alder for Ward 7 in Kingston, having been elected to that position last year.
“November will be 14 years,” wrote Olivieri in an email, “that I have been with UCAT.”
“Shortly after Loren started,” continued Olivieri, “he created a night-time supervisor role that had never existed at UCAT …. When I was advised of the new shift, I did bring to his attention that I am an elected official with nighttime obligations, and I was told unless a coverage plan was created that it is my responsibility to be at UCAT during my shift.”
In the past, according to Olivieri, a supervisor could be reached off-hours via cellphone to troubleshoot problems.
“My concern is consistency,” explained Petit. “If you’ve always worked eight to four, you should continue. Your life is revolving around eight to four. I don’t understand bidding on routes, I mean, I understand what [Johnson] said. He doesn’t want there to be any apparent favoritism.”
Constable alleges that Johnson, who got the job in March 2021, will blame everyone under him for the problematic rollout of route and driver changes over the weekend and into the weekdays, “They’re probably going to talk about why the runs are so screwed up,” predicted Constable. “Because he told Toni Roser [deputy director at UCAT] to fix the runs so that we’ve got eight-hour shifts. But she don’t know how to do it.”
Plotting out routes is a complex job. Roser, who does not usually handle the plotting of routes, was given just two weeks to do the job.
New routes not posted
Johnson fielded a question at the September 12 committee meeting about when the public should expect the changes in the routes and schedules to begin, “So right now, we’re in the process of procuring the needed software to do this work,” he explained. “Otherwise, I don’t have, and I mean I don’t have the manpower or even the staff with the experience to do the work that is needed to give Ulster County the routing system and schematic that it deserves, and been asking for, for years.
“So I’m hoping to have that procured within the next hopefully by mid-October, end of October, and then it will take about two, about a month and a half to get a working plan together.
“And then we’ll start looking at doing public meetings along the way. And those will be community-based. So you know, like, we’ll take Kingston area, and we’ll show the routes that interconnect in Kingston, which will be all of them, right? But then we also want to be able to go out to, you know, like New Paltz, here, or out in Ellenville, to hold some meetings there to get the impact of what it is that they need out of a transit system, and everything. So, to answer your specific question, I would say about four to six months.”
Less than a month later UCAT rolled out its changes in routes, driver schedules, and the fare-less public transport model at the same time.
At the October meeting, legislator Petit addressed the confusion from her perspective:
“The calls that I was getting had to do with Facebook. I generally don’t go to Facebook, I go to the websites. And the website still even says there’s a fare right now. The new routes were not posted …. Now the rollout with the change to the schedule. I pulled up the FTA [Federal Transit Administration]. I was reading article 6…, Shouldn’t there have been a 30-day notification just so people would understand and could plan?
“So many of the calls were, ‘Well, gee, we’re waiting on Wurts Street and the bus didn’t come in today,’ or ‘I’m in Saugerties, and the bus didn’t show up …. I guess you didn’t eliminate the mall, but you’ve absorbed it into another line. So they’re running behind, too.’”
Gripes and grievances
As the labor-relations specialist for the local 856, the chapter of the CSEA labor union to which UCAT workers belong, Howard Baul is aware of the employee discontent at the transportation department.
“We’re hearing gripes and grievances,” says Baul.
Unlike a gripe, a grievance can have legal repercussions. The contract between the CSEA and the county defines a grievance as a violation of the bargaining agreement.
“So any time this issue comes forth, first we try to work it out informally, and if we can’t work it out, then we look toward what our legal options are,” said Baul. “Ultimately, the goal that we look for is to work out the grievances with conversation. If we point out something to the other side that pushes the confines of the contract and they recognize that and make that adjustment, there’s no grievance.”
When Johnson took over the department, besides staffing shortages and operational concerns, favoritism was an issue.
“I can tell you that from my standpoint, representing our members over the years,” says Baul, “this department has not been a model department. There have been issues for a very long time through multiple directors and certain employees were treated different than other employees.”
Baul recognizes the perception that Johnson is fast-tracking his changes.
“Myself and the unit 8950 CSEA president [Tina Buono]. the two of us recognize that the county has a vision for UCAT and that there were going to be some changes coming. We wanted to be part of the discussion to bring forth, discuss and resolve issues. I think [director Johnson] is looking to make change. And unfortunately some of those changes are not very popular.”
“Change comes hard”
Johnson seems to acknowledge the difficulty of the transition that many of the employees have been experiencing, but he is a slogan-ready speaker who seems to have ruled himself out as a person to blame.“So change is hard,” said Johnson at the committee meeting. “That’s a reality. People are not going to be comfortable with bidding on rounds or adhering to a CBA that we hadn’t been properly adhering to …. Those changes do come hard, but eventually they become the new way that people work, and they will settle in over time.”
Deputy county executive Chris Kelly, tasked with overseeing transportation for Ulster County, conducted some of the interviews to select the new director. Kelly used much of the same language as Johnson did, couching the compulsory restructuring of the UCAT’s employees’ schedules in terms of efficiency and dedication to public service.
At the legislative meeting, Tanya Garment had been querying Johnson about giving drivers a longer preparation time before changing their schedules, and teaching them their new jobs before instituting changes.
“I’ve done several organizational change efforts in my career,” Kelly said, “and all in the public sector. Change comes hard. You have to refocus on serving riders. And with that is going to come uncomfortable moments and change for the existing staff. That’s just the reality. The way that we communicate that is important, of course, but the whole goal, to Loren’s point … it has to be refocused on providing the service.
“We’ve adapted. We’ve tried to do whatever we can to accommodate different drivers or their schedules. But at a certain point it doesn’t work for a large and growing organization with higher gains.”
Many employees who have been on the job over a decade, if not nearing two decades, and they take issue with the director’s heavy emphasis that UCAT is outmoded and inefficient. UCAT passed a number of FTA [Federal Transit Administration] review cycles with flying colors before Johnson arrived. The last four review cycles performed by the FTA have given UCAT good ratings.
Federal grants account for over half of UCAT revenues, just under $3.2 million annually, and the FTA conducts reviews of UCAT every three years, upon pain of funding revocation. The feds examine grantee performance and adherence to statutory and administrative requirement and policies such as whether the recipient has the staffing and resources to ensure compliance with the ADA and the dependability of fixed route service.
In 2017 UCAT was ranked among the top two percent of transit agencies in the nation.
“UCAT director Carole Hargrove and her team are doing an outstanding job on behalf of the people of Ulster County,” said county executive Mike Hein at that time. “Even though they have the enormous challenge of coordinating a public transportation system across a county the size of the State of Rhode Island, they provide top-quality service with incredible efficiency.”
Prior directors have included Cynthia Ruiz, Bob DiBella, Carol Hargrove and Saaja Ahmed.
Johnson’s UCAT has not yet faced a review, which should be scheduled for next year.
A positive direction?
While the labor shortage at UCAT was pre-existing to Johnson’s arrival, it now rests squarely on his administration.
Though Johnson didn’t share it at the committee meeting, UCAT is currently unable to hire new workers even if it could find them because Johnson’s transportation department has run afoul of the OPWDD (Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities) Johnson, at an August 22 manager’s meeting, explained to the room that no new employees could be hired for eight months. With a staff currently seven positions short to serve the county’s transportation needs effectively, one can anticipate the stress on the remaining workers.
“That’s a concern from our perspective,” said Petit, “keeping a good work environment for our employees. You know, not being given favoritism or special routes or anything, but certainly not where they calling out sick and don’t want to go into work.”
A popular dig among UCAT employees is that Loren Johnson has never driven a bus. The sentiment has been that he is all theory and not enough behind-the-wheel praxis.
“My background experiences is creating data dashboards,” Johnson has said. “And I would love to be able to get to a point where we put a data dashboard that’s outward facing on our website. So people will see how many trips we’re doing a day, how many routes are running on time. So that the public knows … this is what we’re providing …. I’m a firm believer in letting your work speak for yourself. I don’t like to get on a soapbox and have this grandstand and saying we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. I want the data to show you where we’re at. And by the initiatives that I’m going to put in place, you’re going to see us grow in a positive direction going forward.”
The adoption of a supplemental public transport service to pick up the slack in UCAT’s rope has been the expressed desire of departed county executive Pat Ryan, deputy executive Kelly and director Johnson. A proposal to bring “affordable, convenient, electric microtransit, on-demand through a mobile app, to Kingston and Ellenville” was announced by Ryan back in March.
Ulster County and two non-profits, Sustainable Hudson Valley and Family of Woodstock, entered into a joint initiative with Via, which a press release from the executive’s office calls “the global leader in transit tech.” That partnership, boasted the county, would be the first mobility service of its kind in the country.
Over the months since Johnson was confirmed by the legislature, the transportation committee has been an occasional forum for discussion about what that forward-facing future of modal transit will look like.
“One of the things I’ve come to understand,” Melissa Everett, executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, said at the July 11 transportation committee meeting, ”is that it’s not just pilot, the same old thing, but it’s learn and adapt, and course correct, and kind of test what it is that’s needed for microtransit to complement the transit system and really be useful.”
The speech pattern running through these comments shows a willingness to improvise with public transit. Against this backdrop, Johnson’s uses the term “legacy” when referring to the workforce who predate both his hiring and his unrealized system.
Via described present public transport using similar argot when it pitched its purpose in the county executive’s announcement as providing innovative software “to transform a client’s legacy transportation systems into advanced digital networks.”
This compulsory march to a more efficient future is one explanation for the workplace changes at UCAT. But in the hunt for money, providing ample time and effort to plan for existing legacy transportation seems to have been botched.
“Just trying to figure out if this idea of these on-demand, on-call electric shuttles would be something that people would, would use,” explained Cynthia Nitkin, consultant for Sustainable Hudson Valley. “It’s for the first-mile, last-mile connectivity to connect you to a UCAT bus route, or if there is no bus at that time, to take you to your destination.”
When should the public expect the changes in the routes and schedules to begin?
Less than a month later UCAT rolled out changes in routes, driver schedules and the fare-less public transport model. Johnson was asked by Petit whether there would be further bids for job position and schedules.
“There is going to be a secondary bid that will happen,” replied Johnson, “after we procure the software and restructure our fixed routes and bring in-demand, responsive microtransit services.”
Down seven workers and with over a third of the remaining staff seeking redress from the county personnel department, the legacy situation doesn’t currently look like it’s breaking in the director’s favor.
“The microtransit proposal that was in was through a private vendor, that was Via,” explained Petit. “So we’d be hiring a private vendor. My question would then be why not just have a private company come in and do it? We could coordinate with them. We have taxis. We have Uber. The issue with Via was that we would be buying the vehicles. They’re running it, but we’re paying for everything. How government is that?”
Just as a fare-less transit system has been adopted by resolution of the legislature, Johnson’s crusade for operational efficiency has by all accounts alienated a large portion of the dwindling staff. That has left many of Ulster County’s most vulnerable residents on the side of the road. Literally.
Legacy staff know things that data dashboard experts don’t. They have to work together. Properly managed legacy knowledge keeps the buses running on time and responsive to changing customer needs.
“[UCAT] really serves mostly captive riders who are people who need extra supports. It’s a huge percentage of the riders currently,” said Garment. “So they really rely on their bus drivers to remember them and to know where to stop for them …. He always waits at a certain point, because that’s where it’s safe, because it’s a difficult bus stop with the cars. The driver who was covering that day stopped in a different place, and [the man waiting] couldn’t get the driver to move.”
A communication from deputy county executive Chris Kelly
While it is not common practice for the county executive’s office and our departments to comment on personnel issues in the press, we do feel it is proper to give context to what is contained in this article.
First and foremost, we support our staff and their strong commitment to providing Ulster County residents with optimal transit services. We also support UCAT director Loren Johnson in his effort to maximize our ability to deliver these services. We do not believe these to be exclusive of each other, and over time a collaborative effort will lead to a better workplace for all and the best possible services for our residents.
Our goal is to increase ridership through operational efficiencies and expanding services to areas that currently lack transit options.
As part of this transition, we have changed the schedules for drivers, dispatchers, and support staff to better meet the needs of our riders. We understand this is disruptive for their individual lives, but we have made all of these changes in consultation with the employees and their union.
To date, we have received no formal grievances from the staff regarding any of the changes made, as we believe the changes have all been made in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement.
Ulster County is an organization of over 1300 employees, and we have five collective bargaining units that govern much of the employee/management working relationship. While it is unfortunate that individual employees are having difficulty with the changes, our goal is to continue to work with them and find ways to incorporate their feedback into what we believe will be transformative changes for the county.
UCAT’s services have undergone significant change over the last several years with the addition of Kingston Citibus to its organization and then the pressures of managing through a pandemic.
We are now at the point where our organization needs to catch up to the demands of a modern, efficient, and equitable transit system. This includes changing routes and schedules, investing in electric buses and the associated infrastructure, and refocusing our effort in ensuring our ridership is receiving the level of service and professionalism they deserve. Ultimately, we are working towards the improvements our riders need.