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AI-enabled cameras nearly caused bus drivers’ strike in Fresno. ‘We were willing to walk.’

Fresno's Handy Ride bus drivers agreed to a new three-year contract this week, narrowing avoiding a striking that would have affected hundreds of residents.
Submitted via Fresnoland
Fresno's Handy Ride bus drivers agreed to a new three-year contract this week, narrowing avoiding a striking that would have affected hundreds of residents.

Bus drivers for Fresno's on-demand paratransit service Handy Ride narrowly avoided a strike this week, ultimately scoring wins in terms of both wages and protections against artificial intelligence software on vehicles.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, or ATU, Local 1027 ratified a new agreement Monday with National Transit Express, the city's contractor providing transportation services for people with disabilities.

"They really do deserve every single penny that they earn," said Alfredo Molina, ATU Local 1027's treasurer. "They work day in, day out, dealing with the most vulnerable of folks out there in the community. … We ratified a pretty strong contract."

Handy Ride provides daily "curb-to-curb" ride services for people in Fresno who "cannot functionally use the FAX City bus system," according to the city's website.

"We are pleased to see that the two sides have an agreement," said city spokesperson Sontaya Rose in an email to Fresnoland on Tuesday, "and it does not impact those riders who are dependent on paratransit services in our community."

Fresnoland reached out to National Transit Express Tuesday for comment on the deal.

The 76 drivers, mechanics, and other employees who staff Fresno's Handy Ride services will see an ongoing 12% raise this year and 4% raises for the next three years through 2027 under the new agreement, according to union leaders.

The deal also includes new language that requires the company to give the union 30 days' notice before introducing new technology, including artificial intelligence, into vehicles, during which the union can request to bargain over the effects of the technology.

Union leaders said this matter became a sticking point in negotiations after the company introduced technology equipped with AI into vehicles that monitor drivers.

"This technology is so sensitive that if you scratch your face and take your hand off the wheel for longer than I believe … three seconds, it flags the company," Molina said.

"We understand this is new technology. We understand this is where things are going in the future," he added, "but we're humans. We're not robots. We're going to do these things throughout the day."

Negotiations over a service affecting hundreds of passengers in Fresno

About 90% of ATU members with Handy Ride authorized a strike earlier this month, Molina said, which would have started Monday. The workers' previous contract expired Feb. 17.

If it hadn't been for a 12-hour bargaining session Feb. 23, hundreds of people would have missed out on rides each day of the strike, according to estimates from the city.

"Folks use this to go to all of their doctor's appointments, dialysis appointments," Molina said.

"This last week, we must have visited all of the dialysis centers in town, we visited all of the big congregational churches, let them know that this might impact the congregation," he added.

What bus drivers and others are getting out of the new deal

Handy Ride bus drivers' starting wages will increase from $19 an hour to $23.94 over the contract's life, according to a copy of the new agreement provided to Fresnoland. The new maximum salary for drivers will rise from $24.50 to $30.87 by 2027.

Mechanics, dispatchers, and other employees with Fresno's Handy Ride will also see their wages rise over the next several years.

Getting starting wages above $20 with the new minimum wage for fast food workers in California coming in April was a priority that the new contract accomplishes, Molina said.

"These jobs are safety-sensitive in nature," Molina said, and require proper licensing through the Department of Motor Vehicles, medical certificates through the Department of Transportation, and other training requirements.

Handy Ride driver Faitha Jenkins, who's been with the agency for 19 years, said it often feels like their work with vulnerable populations goes underrecognized.

"It's hard work. I believe our work is harder than what the big buses do, physically," she said.

"We have to get off the bus at each stop and make sure they can walk up the stairs," she added. "Sometimes we have to go inside the gate to assist the clients to the vehicle."

The contract's new article on AI and other new technology stipulates a grievance procedure for employees who face disciplinary action as a result of any recording the systems gather.

Though technology like AI-equipped recording devices are often framed as a safety measure by the company, Molina said, there's a fine line between that and "weaponizing this system to get our members in trouble."

"We were willing to walk," he said, "because of this."

The new protections built into the contract are particularly important given the sensitive clientele Handy Ride employees work with, Jenkins said.

"One client might not want the air on. Another client might want the air on. So if the driver takes their hand off the steering wheel to turn the air off or lower it down," she said, "then they get penalized … for that."

What's next for ATU?

Molina said about 85% of voting members ratified the new contract with National Express Transit on Monday.

The new wages for Fresno's Handy Ride workers will kick in on March 3.

ATU Local 1027 also represents the city's FAX drivers. Those workers also nearly went on strike in 2022 over concerns related to video recordings of drivers in buses.

Molina said FAX buses don't currently have AI technology integrated with the recording technology.

Rose declined to comment on whether they're considering introducing similar technology into FAX buses, stating that "At this time, we do not have enough information on language to make a comment."

The contract with FAX drivers will expire next June.

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.