“I wanted to be out helping people”

Karl Larson became a Paratransit Van Operator at STA a year ago this month, but because of coronavirus, he hasn’t had the typical rookie experience – not by a long shot.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” Larson said. “In more ways than I could have imagined.” 

But despite the unforeseen challenges that surfaced as a result of COVID-19, Larson’s new job has provided him with the life experience he was searching for when he left his previous career in the insurance industry.

“I wanted to be out in the community helping people,” he said. “In my prior job, my interactions with people were only by phone. I was looking for real-life, face-to-face contact with my customers.”

For the time being, that means mask-to-mask contact, and being able to adapt to the evolving needs of the Paratransit customer base and the community.

Now, on a typical morning, Larson will board a paratransit van and head out to pick up a single customer to transport to their destination. This is vastly different from pre-COVID-19 days, when Paratransit was a shared-ride service, and van operators picked up customers at various locations, each with a unique agenda and destination.

“My customers are thankful to STA for limiting passengers to one per van trip during this health crisis,” Larson said. “But they do miss seeing their friends and having conversations with other passengers.”

To help retain some of that social interaction, Larson makes a point to visit with his customers throughout the course of their trips. He knows full well that the coronavirus has shut down many places they would normally go to find support and socialize with friends and family.

“For a lot of people, I’m the only person they get to see now,” Larson said. “We enjoy our conversations. Watching a customer’s face light up makes my day.”

Once Larson has his passenger safely to their destination, he thoroughly disinfects the van before starting another trip or returning to base. At 10:00 a.m. he and a partner are due at the Meals on Wheels headquarters, where he picks up 25-40 meals to be delivered to those in need.

“STA’s partnership with Meals on Wheels during the pandemic is a win for everyone,” Larson said. “Paratransit van operators are able to keep working despite a significant drop in ridership, and Meals on Wheels has the extra hands it needs to meet the increased demand for meal delivery services.”

On other days, Larson works a shuttle service taking STA coach operators to buses where they meet up with drivers they are scheduled to relieve. Often, the switches takes place at the STA Plaza, but shuttles also run to Spokane Valley and anywhere else relief drivers are required.

“The shuttle service provides an opportunity for coach and van operators to get to know each other and share their experiences,” Larson said. “We tend to agree that when a crisis like this happens, we feel more appreciative of what we have and are just happy to be healthy and able to help others.”

Last spring, STA began allowing non-ADA eligible seniors to reserve paratransit van rides through a temporary program called “Rides for Seniors”.

For $2 per ride, people age 60+ can reserve individual door-to-door van service to any destination within the 248-square-mile Public Transit Benefit Area.

“This has been a real lifeline, especially for families fearful of exposing mom and dad to coronavirus,” Larson said. “These customers love this program and regularly use it for running errands like getting groceries or going to doctor appointments.”

Larson’s own concern about contracting COV-19 is minimal. He is pleased with the precautions STA has put in place to protect both passengers and drivers.

“We have disinfectant, respirators, and the support of our supervisors and trainers whose main focus is keeping everyone safe on the vans,” Larson said. “The best thing we can do now is to stay positive and have a good attitude.”

Click here if you would like to learn more about STA’s Paratransit Services.

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