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Mia Birk, Alta Bicycle Share face scrutiny over labor practices, Citibike hiccups

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

A Capital Bikeshare employee “rebalances” bikes
at a docking site near Union Station. Some past and
current employees claim they’ve been underpaid
by Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s been a rough few weeks for Alta Bicycle Share VP Mia Birk. The roll-out of the massive and high-profile Citibike system has by many measures been a huge success. But it has also been marred by public allegations of illegal labor practices in Washington D.C. and software glitches and poor customer service in New York City. This bad PR isn’t new for Alta as they’ve come under fire in the past for delayed launches and last year a rival company accused them of unfair conduct while competing for a bikeshare contract in Chicago.

In Washington D.C., a former employee of Alta’s Capital Bikeshare says he was underpaid and not given the health benefits he’s due under federal contract law. Alta operates the Capital Bikeshare under contract with D.C.’s Department of Transportation. Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post story on May 6th:

Former employee Samuel Swen­son has told the U.S. Labor Department that he was paid $13 hourly for work that should have been subject to the federal “bicycle repairer” rate of $14.43 hourly or “truck driver, light” at $15.66 hourly. Before he left Capital Bikeshare, Swenson said, he received a raise to $15 hourly but was not paid fringe benefits required under federal law.

Capital Bikeshare, a subsidiary of Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Ore., operates the system under a 2010 contract with the District’s Transportation Department worth up to $16.4 million over five years. The contract specifies that Capital Bikeshare must follow federal “prevailing wage” determinations, which are published regularly by the Labor Department.

Then on May 28th, Swenson and 17 other current and former Capital Bikeshare employees went public with claims they were owed back-pay and benefits. The group wrote a letter on an online petition site that called out Mia Birk specifically:

Birk in September 2011 after signing
the New York City contract.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Dear Mia,

We are the mechanics, drivers, technicians, dispatchers, and office workers who helped build Capital Bikeshare and set the standard for bikesharing programs nationwide. We’re writing to ask you to do the right thing: comply with the Service Contract Act and pay us all the wages and health & welfare benefits that you committed to pay in Alta’s contract with the Washington DC Department of Transportation (DDOT)…

Mia, it’s time for Alta Bicycle Share to play fair and set an example as a leader in good green jobs…

The U.S. Department of Labor is now looking into the issue and they’ve requested information from Alta about the allegations. Asked for comment on the issue, Birk shared the following via email today:

We are working hard to resolve the prevailing wage question for our Capital Bike Share workers. As such we are providing the requested information to the Department of Labor and also completing an internal review. This is a very important issue to us, and we want to handle it right. As we are a very young company at the forefront of a new industry, we are learning as we go.

We fully value our work force and are proud of our success – in partnership with the District of Columbia – in launching and operating a world-class bike share system with more than 4 million miles logged to date.

When I am able to share the results and actions, I will do so.

You can learn more about the workers’ issues on their Tumblr site and via the Greater Greater Washington blog.

Adding to Alta’s plate is a New York Times story published today about hiccups in the Citibike system. Despite the huge popularity of the system, in Two Weeks In, Riders and Errors for Bike-Share Effort, the Times reports on how New York is handling “the rash of problems plaguing its system, which has had technical errors of a magnitude never experienced by bike-share programs in other major American cities.” The article details problems with docking stations that won’t accept bikes and then long waits (45 minutes or more) for users who call customer service to complain.

It’s important to recall that the launch of Citibike was delayed because the new software Alta’s partner company created specifically for the New York system wasn’t ready for prime-time. Hurricane Sandy damaged some of the bikes, which also contributed to the delay. Alta has since sued their insurance company over the losses.

All of this is happening while Citibike continues to make national headlines — including a now famous rant by a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and a feature on The Daily Show with John Stewart.

Yesterday, Sustainable Business Oregon reported that Birk is taking all the heat in stride and that she continues to work on launching new systems in Portland and Seattle.