A Portland-based company called Alta Bicycle Share has experienced its share of professional peaks and valleys in the last few weeks. Citi Bike, a wide-ranging bike share program run by Alta Bicycle Share, recently opened to great fanfare in New York City. With 15,000 members and 6,000 bicycles at over 300 stations across Manhattan and Brooklyn, the bike sharing program is the largest of its kind in the United States. However, New York’s Citi Bike not the only bike share that Alta runs; a similar program called Capital Bikeshare has been running successfully in Washington, D.C. since 2010 (and was the largest in the country before Citi Bike opened on May 27). Alta is also considering opening similar bike share systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and even in its hometown of Portland.
However, in the midst of this professional success, Alta Bicycle Share is also facing some serious labor issues: some of its Washington, D.C. employees at Capital Bikeshare are accusing the company of unfairly withholding wages. The Oregonian reports that eighteen current and former Capital Bikeshare employees have signed a petition that asks Alta’s president, Mia Birk, to pay $100,000 in wages and benefits they allege were guaranteed in their contracts but were not paid out to them. This has led to an investigation by the Department of Labor, which has requested Alta to provide information about its wage and labor practices.
Samuel Swenson, a former mechanic at Capital Bikeshare, claims that Alta’s full-time employees have contracts with the company that promise them no less than a $15.66 hourly wage, as well as $3.65 in hourly health and welfare benefits. Alta employees can choose to take the health and welfare benefit in cash or through a healthcare plan provided by the company. Despite these contractual agreements, Swenson said that many employees were denied the health and welfare benefits, and several are only given $13 per hour.
The majority of the employees who have signed the petition are bicycle mechanics and “rebalancers,” or employees who drive around cities with the bike share programs, load the 40-pound bikes into trucks, and unload them to docking stations where they are needed in order to make sure that the bicycle inventory stays efficiently distributed. The rebalancers feel that Alta has been particularly unfair in failing to live up to its contractual obligations, given that rebalancers have the physically grueling task of loading and unloading heavy bikes for long hours at a stretch, and given that any sort of large-scale bike share program simply will not work without employees to redistribute bicycles to meet the city’s demands.
This petition and the Department of Labor’s investigation into Alta’s labor practices can have some serious consequences for the company. When the federal government finds that a company is in violation of the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act, that company can be debarred from public contracts. Given that Alta’s business in creating city-wide bike shares is so contingent on public cooperation, a finding against the company could seriously hurt both its existing business as well as its plans to expand.
Alta’s current labor problems show that all companies – even ones that grow quickly, or ones that aim to improve public life in cities – need to treat their workers fairly. If you or someone you know believes that your employers have failed to meet their contractual obligations to you, please contact one of our attorneys to help you evaluate your case.