(10/12/07) NEW YORK (AP) - Drivers of buses that often provide the only means of public transit to thousands of disabled and chronically ill riders went on strike early Monday. The four companies serve about 9,000 passengers of the city Access-A-Ride program for people who cannot use mass transit for health or physical reasons. Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the New York City Paratransit Operators Coalition, confirmed the strike began after midnight. The union could not immediately be reached for comment. Michael A. Harris, executive director of the Disabled Riders Coalition, called the strike by the drivers "the wrong decision." "We think it's not going to hurt managers or get their plan across," Harris said. "All it's going to do is inconvenience people with disabilities." Jack Bogart, a retired construction supervisor who uses a wheelchair, said he relies on the free curbside pickup. "They just changed my heart medication and I need to get my labs done to make sure I'm OK," Bogart told the Daily News. He said he would have to pay $60 for a car service and ask a friend to help him walk to his medical appointment because his wheelchair doesn't fold and can't fit in a car trunk. The Para Transit Drivers and Mechanics of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061, which has 1,500 members, rejected a contract offer in the fall. Since then, the union said, management has turned down requests to resume talks. "Rather than commit to collective bargaining, the bus companies have deliberately brought us to the picket line," Tommy Mullins, a union vice president and trustee of the local, said Sunday. But the bus companies countered that they had made an offer that was "fair and equitable" with wage increases, longevity and safety bonuses, and only a slight increase in health insurance contributions. "It is time to say 'yes' to the generous offer we put on the table months ago," said Jeff Pollack, the chief negotiator for the Paratransit Operators Coalition, in a statement. The union had said it was prepared to strike starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The four companies contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's public bus and subway system. The MTA is not involved in the negotiations but is monitoring the situation. Trips would continue to be scheduled, said Paul J. Fleuranges, a spokesman for the MTA's New York City Transit division. However, transit officials will reassign trips and use other transportation providers and private ambulette carriers, particularly for serious medical trips such as dialysis treatment and chemotherapy, he said. Some riders might qualify for taxi or car service vouchers, he said.

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