PBOT maintenance staff ask council for support while union organizer says strike isn’t off the table

“We get a lot of thank yous from downtown, but those thank yous dry up when we ask for more money, and we’re suffering.”

-Andrew Sterling, PBOT and Laborers Local 483

The people who work in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Maintenance Operations department do the nitty-gritty work of keeping this city moving — and their work is especially valued by those who rely on clean bike lanes and bright crosswalk stripes for their safety.

Their work is inherently laborious, but maintenance staff used to feel like it was worth it. The city benefits were good, yes – but employees also found a sense of satisfaction and pride in their work. But now, as staff shortages force employees to work excessive hours of overtime without reaping the same benefits or competitive hourly wages public employees used to receive, they’re calling on the city to repair their relationship or face a serious crisis.

As PBOT leaders often remind us, the agency has been dealing with a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog for decades, which they hoped to finally get a handle on with a 10-cent local gas tax in 2016. Portlanders voted in favor of the gas tax again in 2020, but the extra funding hasn’t been the maintenance game-changer it was meant to be. And the lack of upkeep is showing.

A tangible result of PBOT’s maintenance problems. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

As we’ve pointed out, this situation is frustrating for people who bike and walk in this city. Nobody likes riding on greenways full of bumps and potholes or bike lanes littered with glass, trash or leaves. (A recent Bike Loud PDX policy ride with PBOT Maintenance Operations manager Jody Yates provided an insightful look into the importance of street and bikeway maintenance.)

Maintenance staffers are aware of community gripes, but claim they don’t have the resources to fix them.

Deteriorating working conditions reveal cracks in the pavement

Andrew Sterling is a PBOT traffic crew leader and the Vice President of Laborers Local 483, the union that represents PBOT maintenance staff. Yesterday, he took employee concerns to the public stage when he addressed City Council to ask for their help to negotiate improved working conditions.

While Sterling’s main job description concerns doing things like striping bike lanes and maintaining crosswalks, staff shortages and recent emergency weather events (like the April snow storm) have interfered with day-to-day operations. In order to get it all done, crew members have to put in a lot of overtime.

“We worked entirely through Covid, in person, on-site every day,” Sterling said. “Many of my coworkers and myself work 70 to 80 hours a week during weather emergencies. Then we have to pick up where we left off for maintenance operations.”

Sterling said these conditions have made it difficult for the maintenance division to retain and recruit employees. He said people working in this department in the city are making less money than they would if they worked in the private sector, and they aren’t seeing the kinds of benefits city employment used to bring. 

“Our retirement has been defunded. Our benefits have been in decline in the last 15 years,” Sterling said. “What I’m asking of you today is to support us and our day-to-day operations. We get a lot of thank yous from downtown, but those thank yous dry up when we ask for more money, and we’re suffering.” 

“The city is responsive to crisis, and our folks are willing to make themselves a crisis.”

-James O’Laughlen, Laborers Local 483

In response, PBOT commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty issued words of thanks, but didn’t make any promises about changing the situation for these employees.

“Folks who work for maintenance have been in the lead on many of the crises this community has experienced over the last few years,” Hardesty said. “I just want you to know that your commissioner in charge absolutely appreciates the work that you do every single day with the limited resources we have. I also know it’s not your fault we have a $4 million [sic – it’s actually “billion”] maintenance backlog.”

James O’Laughlen, Field Representative & Organizer for Local 483, told BikePortland that the city’s transportation system is suffering as a result of these problems. If something doesn’t change soon, this backlog will only get worse.

“Having so much emergency work without the necessary workers crowds out the infrastructure improvements we’re all focused on, from achieving Vision Zero to meaningful ADA compliance on our sidewalks,” O’Laughlen said on a phone call this morning. “This work only happens because people go above and beyond. They show up for voluntary overtime because they know if they don’t, the backlog is going to grow and grow.”

Employees are keeping their options on the table

Union members have been involved in contract discussions with the city since March, and although their old contract expired at the end of June, they haven’t yet come to an agreement on the terms of the new one.

O’Laughlen told BikePortland the two main things they’re looking for in the new contract are wages and safety. They want to bring back the working standard public employees used to be able to count on that made arduous public sector jobs competitive.

“What we need for our members is to create an environment where people aren’t aggressively overworked, where they are protected from conditions that have been deteriorating and getting compensation for it,” O’Laughlen said on a phone call today. “It’s hard to recruit and it’s hard to retain in a low-morale environment. It’s hard to perform the work.”

If Local 483 and the city can’t come to an agreement soon, the next step will be to bring in a mediator. If they don’t work out a deal after that, there’s potential for a strike after a cooling-off period.

“There’s a reticence to do it, but our members have communicated strongly that they’re willing to go that far. It’s based on wanting to perform this public service work.” O’Laughlen said. “They know that that the city is responsive to crisis, and our folks are willing to make themselves a crisis.”

Guest Article: Why PBOT’s top maintenance staffer joined us for a bike ride

PBOT’s Jody Yates (seated in pedicab) at the ride. (Photos: Cathy Tuttle/BikeLoud PDX)

Story and photos by Cathy Tuttle

People who bike every day are the folks who ground-truth poor maintenance. We intimately experience gutters filled with leaves and plastic bike lane wands broken in the same locations day after day. We see street trees dying, and giant potholes reappearing over and over on what look like war-torn streets. Then there are the piles of slippery leaves, illegible street signs, shattered glass, chunks of concrete, thorny brambles and so on. These hazards could injure or even kill someone. And they always make us uncomfortable.

Yet as important as it is, a well-maintained stretch of asphalt isn’t much of a photo op or ribbon-cutting opportunity. Maintenance just doesn’t have the same political oomph that “new” has. That means repairing, upgrading, and fixing streets is often overlooked, underfunded and understaffed.

The City of Portland wants to change that.

Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Maintenance and Operations Manager Jody Yates shared her time, knowledge, and experience with us on Friday August 26. Yates headlined the eleventh monthly BikeLoud PDX Policy Ride I’ve hosted, and her topic is what I’m personally most interested in as we retrofit our cities for the future. As a city planner and project manager, I have always been dedicated to building infrastructure we can maintain easily, rather than spending money on streets that need to be constantly rebuilt. Yates is too.

Jody Yates spent Friday afternoon riding in a three-wheeled electric pedicab piloted by Go By Bike founder and BikeLoud PDX Board President Kiel Johnson. Yates and the group who came to this Pedalpalooza ride talked for three hours about the materials under our feet (and wheels) and we barely scratched the surface.

PBOT is responsible for the maintenance of hundreds of millions of square feet of pavement – streets, sidewalks, bridges, staircases, plazas, and more. Though she started just in February 2022, Yates is up to speed on leading a maintenance and operations division of several hundred people. She brings a wealth of practical experience. A civil engineer for the past 25 years, Yates worked mainly for governments in Clackamas, Portland, and most recently in Beaverton. A thoughtful engineer, Yates was instrumental in getting programs started in creative street activation and rigorous asset management.  Yates is putting significant energy into assessing where and how streets are failing, and smart ways to improve them.

There are three main culprits of pavement destruction. In order of severity, streets are damaged by: poorly repaired utility trenches, extra heavy vehicles, and tree roots.

Though PBOT’s Maintenance and Operations Division does repairs and implements designs generated by other PBOT divisions, Yates talked about street maintenance as a design issue in and of itself, of how maintenance should be a first consideration and built into designs of new and upgraded streets. Streets need to be easy and affordable to take care of. 

 Yates said there are three main culprits of pavement destruction. In order of severity, streets are damaged by: poorly repaired utility trenches, extra heavy vehicles, and, far back in third place, by tree roots.

Utility trenches are made by gas, sewer, water, telecom, and other utilities. Yates called out telecom companies for doing a slapdash job repairing the roads they rip up when installing cables. Yates made the analogy of the process of utility cut and covers to a shirt that has been torn again and again; sometimes repaired carefully, but often too quickly. And all the tears and repairs eventually destroy the “fabric” of the street.

On our tour we looked at old streets cobbled with ballast blocks, pocked and pitted asphalt, concrete panels, and even some 100-year-old mixtures of paving material that still are intact because they hadn’t been cut into very much. 

Road repaving can cost upwards of $6 million a mile, and with Portland on the hook for taking care of over 2,000 miles of roads, keeping what we have in good condition is very sensible.

Heavy vehicles can and do quickly destroy roads too. Transit stops are reinforced with heavy duty concrete panels instead of a few inches of asphalt that tends to quickly deform under heavy wheels. People walking and rolling do virtually no damage to streets, but cars also quickly wear off paint and thermoplastic, damage curbs and street furnishings, and wear down pavement too. A few divisions of PBOT staff under Yates are responsible for repairing damage to paint, furnishings, and other public street elements.

Street trees are vital to a healthy resilient city, but their roots can also lift pavement as they search for water and nutrients. Streets that have minimal or no car traffic — like the Park Blocks on the PSU campus — have plenty of room for mature street trees. Low-car streets also need much less maintenance to repair paving, paint, and street furnishings. Another reason it’s smart for us to invest in streets that prioritize people walking and wheeling? They never do as much damage to the right of way as cars do.

People who bike care about safety and comfort. That’s why road maintenance is so important to us. Smooth roads, clear sightlines, few conflict zones along routes including door zones and safe intersections. We need clear directional signs to guide us while biking. We need enough room to avoid obstacles and wide enough lanes to ride side by side together or to pass other people biking.

For all these reasons and more we look forward to learning more and working with Jody Yates and PBOT on these issues in the future!