Building Barriers Against a Pandemic
Coming to work each day during the coronavirus pandemic gives Paratransit Reservationist Toby Herman a sense of pride. This week, he celebrates 25 years of helping disabled members of the community meet their transportation needs through STA.
“COVID-19 is the most challenging situation we’ve ever had to deal with in the 25 years I’ve worked here,” Herman said. “We’ve had to react quickly by adjusting procedures and policies, and we’ve changed the way we do things in our office to maintain a healthy workplace and continue to serve those in need.”
Despite the difficulties the coronavirus emergency has created, one part of Herman’s job has stayed the same.
“Communicating with our customers over the phone on a daily basis brings me a lot of satisfaction,” he said. “I’m able to assist vulnerable people that need transportation.”
Herman has seen STA change over the decades. Back in 1995 when he was first hired, Paratransit reservations were taken manually over corded desktop phones. The reservationists didn’t even use headsets.
“It could get pretty noisy, especially when all the phones started ringing at once,” Herman said. “Thankfully, new technology meant better equipment, so things are much quieter now.”
These days the Paratransit offices are also quieter because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Before the pandemic, a team of 4-7 Paratransit reservationists could field up to 700 calls during a busy shift. Now, that number is dramatically reduced. Many vulnerable customers opt to stay home and avoid taking all but essential trips for groceries, medical supplies and doctor visits.
However, early morning call volume has somewhat increased. Before COVID-19, break-of-dawn calls were relatively rare, and STA supervisors would answer them until the reservationists came in at 8 a.m. Now Herman comes to work two hours early to lend a hand.
“I have two phones at my desk now,” Herman said. “One is for those early morning calls that come in on our ‘after hours’ phone line, and another for calls during regular business hours.”
Herman’s customer service skills are top-notch and he’s well known by customers who appreciate his cheerful and friendly manner, patience and genuine desire to meet their transportation needs.
“My main goal right now is to minimize stress for our customers and maintain as much normalcy for them as possible,” Herman said. “Lately, we’ve had a lot of customers who are concerned about the requirement to wear a mask on their van trips and I explain the reasoning and why it is important. Some people get worried because they don’t have a mask. They’re very appreciative when they learn they can get one from their driver.”
Herman has also noticed that customers are relieved to find their Personal Care Attendant will be the only other passenger traveling on the van. STA put this safety measure in place at the start of the coronavirus outbreak to ensure proper onboard social distancing.
Herman is impressed with this tactic and the many other enhanced safety practices STA has initiated to help protect both passengers and employees. He feels a sense of pride from the creative ways the agency has found to maintain essential transportation services through the health crisis.
One example he points to is Rides for Seniors, a temporary program during the crisis that allows people age 60 and over to reserve trips on Paratransit vans without having to meet the normal eligibility requirements.
Herman and his team immediately assumed responsibility for taking those reservations. It was apparent from the program’s instant popularity that STA was filling an important void in the transportation needs of this age group.
“Because of COVID-19, a lot of these people can no longer depend on friends or family to take them on errands or to appointments,” Herman said. “There are also unforeseen circumstances that come up and people need safe and timely transportation that they can rely on to get them where they need to go.”
“I know we have done our job well when a customer tells me we are a ‘saving grace’ and a ‘godsend’ because they would be stuck at home if it wasn’t for us,” Herman said.
“Nothing makes me feel better than hearing a customer tell me that.”