The mother of a 48-year-old special-needs Cambria man is fervently hopeful that upcoming changes in Regional Transit Authority North Coast services won’t affect her son’s longtime job and future.
Steve Bunting has Down’s Syndrome, but he’s a valued employee at a Los Osos supermarket, according to his mom Irvina Raymond and his boss Pete Olsen, store manager of the Haggen supermarket in Los Osos (formerly a Vons).
“Steve has worked hard to get what he has” in the more than two decades he’s worked for Vons/Haggen, his mom said. “When he’s not there, people ask where he is. He’s a happy, positive worker. … It’s not just a job to him. It’s his life, and it’s a good life.”
Bunting also is an award-winning Special Olympics athlete.
An RTA runabout has taken him to and from work for years, literally door to door, as part of the services the transit agency has in place to accommodate disabled and special-needs riders. (Runabouts are vehicles, some of them minivans, that seat four or more people.)
Those services go beyond Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, according to Geoff Straw, RTA’s executive director.
“ADA doesn’t require greater facilitation” for special-needs riders, he said, “it requires equal facilitation” for them and regular riders.
Bunting currently pays $4 per one-way trip. Straw said RTA’s average one-way, paratransit-service ride costs the agency more than $64.
North Coast ridership is so low, Straw said, “we can’t even group trips” to amortize the cost over more riders.
“Two or three people on the same bus is about the average.”
Declining North Coast ridership meant RTA lost a $90,000 grant, which dictated the Route 15 changes Raymond feared would leave her son and his future at the curb.
Service from San Simeon to Morro Bay will become a “deviated fixed route.” The regular RTA van will pick up and deliver passengers at the usual stops, but may divert up to three-quarters of a mile between those stops to pick up paratransit passengers like Bunting.
Starting after Labor Day, Bunting will have to get on a regular bus in Cambria and switch to a runabout in Morro Bay. The runabout will take him to his work. He’ll reverse the process to get home again after his five-hour shift.
That worries Raymond, who said she’d been unable to get answers from RTA, so she turned to The Cambrian for help.
“I’m trying to figure out how this can have a happy ending,” she said.
Bunting is high functioning, but his cognitive skills operate at between the ages of 9 and 11, Raymond said. That level allows him to be successful at work, she explained, “if it’s a routine and doesn’t change. … Any change is disconcerting, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. If he had the cognitive skills to switch buses or figure out what to do if a bus doesn’t show up, he’d be driving.”
Raymond, who also cares for the 7-year-old granddaughter she adopted, said driving her son back and forth to Los Osos five days a week for a five-hour shift would be difficult and costly. The retiree from Santa Lucia Middle School said, “I’d just get home in time to turn around and go back.”
The change may not be as drastic as Raymond feared. According to Straw, the new schedule “won’t force people (with special needs) to just fend for themselves. … Once Steve gets on the Route 15 bus, he’ll stay on it,” until that bus meets up with the runabout service in Morro Bay in what’s called a “handshake exchange” or facilitated transfer. “We built extra time in the schedule to take care of those needs.”
Bunting won’t get off the bus until the other vehicle arrives, Straw said. Bunting doesn’t require a wheelchair, so if a bus or the runabout will be delayed too long to meet his schedule, “we’ll send a supervisor up in a car to take care of him. If a bus is late, the runabout will take him all the way home.”
Another aspect that had troubled Raymond was Bunting’s work schedule, which has been from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but occasionally changed. The new bus schedule won’t run as often, reducing his flexibility in getting to and from work. Raymond said her son doesn’t handle long delays well.
But Store Manager Olsen assured The Cambrian that scheduling won’t be difficult.
The store works closely with special-needs workers and students, he said.
“That’s never a problem. With students, we want them to get an education. In Steve’s case, we want him to keep working, because that’s the best thing for him.”
Raymond said she hopes to get the new schedule soon from RTA, so she can consult with Olsen on what hours Bunting will be able to work.
Straw said he wants to, “huddle around the table” soon “to see if we can work something out” with Haggen and Tri Counties Regional Center — which advocates and provides services for Bunting and other special-needs clients — to make sure the changes are seamless and as easy as possible.
“We’ll talk about what resources do we have, and how can we involve the community,” Straw said.
Olsen said on June 15 that Bunting’s work schedule and responsibilities are part of “a position where he’s comfortable. It lets him stay in a routine.”
Then the store manager chuckled. “But when he’s out there in the Special Olympics, I guess he’s a wild man. He comes back, wearing all his gold medals.”
That’s exactly what happened Tuesday, June 16, when Bunting returned to work after competing in the statewide Special Olympics meet in Long Beach June 13 and 14, in which more than 1,100 intellectually disabled athletes competed.
His proud mom said he won a silver medal in the 25-meter backstroke competition and a bronze in the 25-meter freestyle swimming race.