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August 8th, 2007 Don Mcintosh | News Stories
 

Sitting Ducks

Employee safety complaints mount against an ATM service company.

     
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In spring 2006, Kurt Page got a $12-an-hour job at an armored car company in Oregon.

Page thought it might be glamorous work—uniform, gun, hopping out of an armored car and scanning the perimeter, then hauling off bagfuls of cash. Instead, Page ended up with what he and other co-workers consider an uncaring employer in Pendum Inc., a privately held, Illinois-headquartered ATM service company formed in January 2006.

"Odds are, eventually somebody's going to get hurt," says Page, who filed a multipart complaint in late June with Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Division (also called OSHA). "And the people that are in charge that could make a difference sit in an air-conditioned office all day."

While most ATMs nationally are serviced by banks or the ATMs' manufacturers, Pendum is the largest of about 60 independent ATM service companies. A big part of its business is picking up deposits and replenishing cash at free-standing ATMs for convenience-store chains and small banks.

Page, 40, worked in Pendum's unmarked Ford Econoline vans as a "hopper." Hoppers get out and put cash in ATMs. And Page says he'd sit in back with several hundred thousand to several million dollars at a time.

Drivers are walled off from hoppers and communicate by walkie-talkie. Each must press a button simultaneously for the back door to unlock and the hopper to exit.

Page says he felt unsafe inside because if the driver were to fall asleep at the wheel, the hopper would be trapped. Once, Page said, the lock malfunctioned and it took a locksmith to get him out. He also says that employees sometimes made the rounds in an ordinary Enterprise rental van, and that vans went out with dodgy brakes or wobbly steering.

A Pendum area official declined to comment, but two co-workers backed up Page's account. "I [felt] like a target sometimes when I was putting cash in machines," says one of them, Kathleen Pearce, who filed an OSHA complaint in July and was fired Aug. 2. "I was standing outside with bags full of thousands of dollars."

While Page felt unsafe inside the van, he was more scared outside the van. Pendum drivers remain at the wheel when hoppers get out. And unlike at some other companies, there was no third crew member to serve as an armed guard when Page was on his knees with his back turned, loading tens of thousands of dollars into convenience-store ATMs.

Pendum doesn't require or provide armored vests, though Page and Pearce say the company will loan employees the $600 to $1,000 they need to buy one. It also doesn't provide employees a gun, which they are required to carry, though again it will lend them the money to buy one.

Pearce says a Pendum manager loaned her a gun when she started, and told her to tuck it under the seat. If true, that runs afoul of Oregon law, because Pearce didn't have the state certification to carry a gun on the job.

When the company failed to respond within the required 10 days to Page's OSHA complaint, Page emailed two Pendum clients on July 15—Oregon Community Credit Union and First Tech Credit Union.

"I said, '... I think you should know your money's being transported in unarmored rental vans,'" Page recalls.

An irate OCCU manager called Pendum the next day. Page was suspended and then, on July 19, fired.

The following week he filed a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging he was fired for blowing the whistle to OSHA. Noted trial lawyer Judy Snyder has agreed to take Page's case.

If retaliation is proven, the employer can be subject to paying economic damages as well as punitive damages assessed by an administrative law judge, says BOLI spokesman Marc Zolton.

Pendum wrote back to OSHA, denying each of Page's claims, at which point the agency dropped the case without an inspection.

"That was a decision made by our safety manager in Portland, who looked at the written evidence and determined there wasn't anything Oregon OSHA could do," says OSHA spokesman Kevin Weeks. "There wouldn't be a lot they could evaluate because Oregon OSHA doesn't have specific standards for the armored-car industry."

 
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