Dial-a-ride drivers in Scott and Carver counties have known since February that their county jobs would end in the fall. Now, they know who their new employer might be.

Starting Oct. 1, Midwest Paratransit Services Inc. will replace SmartLink Transit’s dial-a-ride service for the two-county area. The company, one of three to respond to a request for proposals, already provides dial-a-ride service in Hennepin and Dakota counties.

For Scott and Carver, the change was spurred by a series of revenue losses, including the cancellation of a $600,000 Americans with Disabilities Act contract from the Metropolitan Council and the loss of the Shakopee Circulator bus line to the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority.

On top of that, SmartLink’s dial-a-ride service has struggled to keep up with demand. There have been an increasing number of ride denials, as well as difficulties making connections between counties.

To save money and expand service, county officials opted early this year to lay off all county-employed SmartLink drivers and some additional staff members and replace them with contractors.

The county drivers will receive a severance package based on number of years in the job. On the high end, drivers who have worked 8 years or more will get 6 months of benefits, and drivers who have worked 10 years or more will get 10 weeks of pay. The package also includes the chance to participate in training and employee assistance programs.

“It was pretty adequate severance,” said Scott County AFSCME President Brad Benson. “It was generous in some ways.”

Uncertain future

Drivers may have the opportunity to apply for jobs with Midwest Paratransit. It all depends on the company’s contract with the county, which could take several weeks to complete, said Deputy County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion.

Several drivers have left since the county layoffs were announced, and the rest aren’t sure if they want to work for Midwest Paratransit, other drivers say.

Midwest Paratransit deferred comment to county officials until the contract is finalized.

Wally Wixon, a 10-year SmartLink driver and an outspoken critic of the layoffs, said he and others are waiting to see what the Midwest Paratransit contract looks like. He isn’t too worried about pay, he said, but he is worried about benefits; his wife’s job for another bus company doesn’t provide them.

For Dean Culver, another driver, “it’s all about the money.” He currently earns a little less than $17 per hour, and is considering jobs elsewhere that would pay more but wouldn’t offer benefits.

“Would it work? Yes,” Culver said. “Is it what I want to do? No.”

For comparable positions in Dakota and Hennepin counties, drivers earn between about $12 and $18 per hour, according to the Metropolitan Council.

At this point, Benson said, he’s hopeful that the contract will offer something similar to what drivers are earning now — although he would rather have avoided the layoffs altogether.

“We lost,” Wixon said. “But at least we went out fighting.”