Safety, security, health shortcomings plague Oklahoma City Streetcar system, union press release says
Streetcar workers say the Oklahoma City Streetcar system is plagued by inadequate security, poor safety measures and lax pandemic precautions.
The shortcomings are the driving force behind an effort to join the union representing Embark transit bus drivers, they say, blaming Embark's contractor, Herzog Transit Services, for blocking their efforts.
A press release issued Monday by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 993 President Chris Bourke said streetcar operators are dealing with "an increasing wave of hostile homeless passengers" and "still lack proper workplace protections" against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five Herzog streetcar employees have active COVID-19 infections, according to the city's latest figures. Though streetcar ridership has tumbled in the wake of COVID-19, monthly figures show a gradual rebound since bottoming out in April.
City Manager Craig Freeman sought to reassure the public.
"I believe it is safe to ride the streetcar," he said late Monday.
The Oklahoma City Streetcar runs daily on a downtown loop and adds service on weekends on a loop through Bricktown. Popularity peaked in June 2019 with 48,100 riders but fell to just 9,900 in June 2020 with the pandemic-related slowdown in downtown events and business.
The streetcar is expected to play an integral part, along with the new Omni luxury hotel, MAPS 3 convention center and downtown park, in showcasing Oklahoma City's renaissance to visitors in coming years.
Oklahoma City contracted with Herzog Transit Services to hire and manage streetcar operators and maintenance technicians.
“Health and safety have been our No. 1 concern from the start,” according to Jamie Drake, a streetcar operator quoted by the ATU.
According to a National Labor Relations Board election notice, Herzog streetcar operators and maintenance workers in Oklahoma City were to vote last month on whether to join ATU Local 993.
Bourke said in the press release workers voted "overwhelmingly" for the union. "We demand the company respect their decision," he said.
Bourke did not respond to a text message and a call seeking comment.
Embark spokesman Michael Scroggins said the agency took the allegations of safety and security shortcomings seriously.
Agency executives, he said, "are looking into it now."
Embark deployed portable toilets for breaks when the pandemic scuttled arrangements for operators to use private facilities along the route.
Scroggins said streetcars are outfitted with masks, sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and other protective products. Vehicles undergo virus-killing ultraviolent and electrostatic fogging treatments, he said.
Embark has a $400,000 annual contract with a security company.
Scroggins said 39 employees are on Herzog's streetcar staff. The NLRB election notice said full- and part-time employees were eligible to vote in the union election.
Embark and Oklahoma City have had a good relationship with the ATU for 50 years, Scroggins said. Bourke said the union has more than 200 members in Embark's bus transit division.