© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Urban Planning

Department of Labor investigating pay dispute at bikeshare company soon to be operating in SF


Alta Bicycle Share, the organization that runs some of the most successful bike share programs in the US, might be underpaying its workers at its Washington, D.C. Capital Bikeshare. The Department of Labor opened an investigation into the company after Capital Bikeshare employees complained.

Samuel Swenson is a former mechanic at the D.C. bike share. When he started at Alta, Swenson said he was making $13 an hour. But, according to the Service Contract Act, which contracts between the federal or local D.C. governments and private companies, Alta was underpaying Swenson.

The SCA says that bicycle mechanics must be paid at least $14.43 hourly. The contract also promises benefits for all employees, at a minimum of $3.35 per hour. Swenson quit after about a year at Capital Bikeshare, citing poor working conditions and frustration with his supervisors. He says he eventually got a raise to $15 an hour, but that he never got any benefits.

“If you total up the wages and the health and welfare benefit I'm entitled to in the contract, I'm owed about $5,000 for a year’s work,” Swenson said.

Swenson said when he asked management about the discrepancies in pay, they brushed him off. He said one of his bosses told him “you’re probably right about the contract, but Alta’s lawyers will find a way out of it.”

Swenson believes Alta is doing good work -- spreading bike sharing across the country and creating green jobs -- but he says the company has to start treating its employees with respect.

“I'm an environmentalist and I'm a bike enthusiast,” he said. “I'm hopeful that Alta can be different and take a lead in the Green Collar economy and treat workers right, and extend sustainability to workers and their families, not just the bikes they fix.”

Kermit Demus is a rebalancer in DC. That means he helps move the bicycles between the stations, when some get too full and others too empty. It’s hard work, he said.

Demus said he started at $13 an hour too. He says he’s making $15.50 an hour now, but under Alta’s contract with D.C.’s Department of Transportation, he should have been making $17.90 the whole time. And like Swenson, Demus said hasn’t received any of the benefits he was promised.

“To me personally, it feels like modern day slavery,” he said. “It’s raining today, if I were to fall off and get hurt, I wouldn’t have any benefits.”  

Demus also has two sons, who he says don’t have health coverage either.

Alta will be running the bike sharing program that hits San Francisco and Silicon Valley this summer. Because it’s not under the same federal contract that exists between Alta and the D.C. bikeshare, Alta won’t be bound by the Service Contract Act in the Bay Area, but Kermit Demus said he’s concerned for the future workers in San Francisco.

“If they do it in DC, the second city Alta started in, there’s no doubt in my mind they will do it elsewhere,” he said, referring to the company underpaying their workers.

Alta is responsible for Boston’s Hubway bikeshare, and it helped the newly-launched Citi Bike in New York. Back in March, Alta signed a contract with San Francisco and five other Bay Area cities to run the Bay Area’s first bike share that’s slated to open in August.                                   

On their website, Alta acknowledges the Department of Labor has requested information from them for a federal wage investigation and says they have provided it, saying: “We fully value our work force and are doing everything we can to ensure that we are in compliance.” Alta did not return requests for comment.    


Swenson and Demus, along with other current and former Alta employees, have written an open letter to Mia Birk, who helped start Alta Bikeshare as president of Alta Planning and Design.