Bathroom breaks that are too short and infrequent, a lack of emergency training, and flaws in the customer complaint system are taking a toll on Metro bus drivers and ultimately, their passengers, a group of Metro operators say.
In a letter presented to the King County Council Aug. 26, drivers and transit advocates asked elected officials to restore bus service for riders and rest breaks for drivers, to recognize and train drivers as “first-responders” in emergencies and to alter a complaint system that allows riders to blame drivers for service cuts caused by economic forces.
Douglas Frechin, a Metro driver for more than four years, said that because certain schedules provide only five minutes of rest and recovery time, some drivers work up to four hours without using the restroom.
“We need more realistic time in the schedule,” Frechin said, after the open letter had been delivered.
Drivers pressed for time have sometimes resorted to makeshift solutions, he said. Two years ago when Frechin went to start a shift, he found a Ziploc bag that looked to be full of urine stashed in a compartment with the fire extinguisher. On another occasion, he discovered a plastic bag filled with urine stashed inside a second bag. Frechin said he assumed that on both instances the bags were left by drivers who were unable to urinate during their shifts, since the bags were found in places inaccessible to riders.
Frechin said he often waits to use the bathroom. Once when he fell behind schedule because he stopped to use the restroom, he was written up for an “unnecessary delay,” he said. Some drivers feel a five-minute break is not enough.
“You still have to use the bathroom,” Frechin said.
The open letter was signed by nearly 40 people, including drivers, a shop steward and an executive board officer from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, which represents Metro transit operators. The letter called on elected officials to restore funding for social services, with the belief that better services would take pressure off of drivers. They’re also seeking more driver representatives on a labor-management security committee.
County councilmembers and County Executive Dow Constantine also received a petition asking officials to help fix Metro’s “demoralizing and unfair customer complaint system.” A driver at the council meeting said close to 450 drivers had signed the petition.
Driver Linda Averill, who has worked for Metro for 20 years, said she always manages to squeeze in a bathroom break, though at times it’s made her late. Making sure you get a break increases pressure to be punctual, she said, which can then lead a driver to pull away from the curb even though someone’s running for the bus or cause a driver to be short-tempered with a passenger. Upset riders can then complain about a driver.
“So you see how it could be a customer-service issue,” Averill said of bathroom breaks.
That’s on top of other issues drivers must contend with, including coping with passengers who may have mental health issues. Averill said that training in CPR and first aid would benefit drivers during dangerous altercations.
“The more we are trained, the more we can help,” she said.
The open letter and petition were delivered two weeks after a passenger, allegedly upset over being asked to pay bus fare after he had entered the rear door, shot the driver. The driver suffered minor wounds to the arm and cheek.
The passenger, however, boarded another bus before he was shot and killed by Seattle police officers. The Seattle Times reported the passenger had a history of drug offenses and mental health issues.
Tough job, tight budget
Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond said that he and Metro officials are sympathetic to issues drivers face.
“It’s a tough job,” he said, “and the pressure to not have the break makes the job that much tougher.”
A 2009 countywide audit heightened concern over break times for some drivers, he said. The audit compared the local transit agency with others in the nation and determined Metro provided abundant layover and recovery times. Desmond said Metro instituted a system to reduce break times, which saved $12 million, but the cuts caused difficulty on runs where layover times were already tight.
As for drivers who may use bags as makeshift restrooms, Desmond said he doesn’t contradict Frechin’s assertions, but he had no way to confirm them. The agency used to have budget funds to fix scheduling concerns, but with the recession, those funds are no longer available, he said.
“Adding time to the schedule adds costs to service,” Desmond said.
Metro currently faces a deficit of
$75 million, and the agency is preparing to cut 17 percent of service beginning in the fall of 2014. An unspecified fare hike is also planned.
While Desmond said he felt for drivers who had stressful interactions with riders, he said he didn’t support training drivers to be first-responders.
“Police and other personnel are already good at that,” Desmond said.
He said the agency will offer drivers a refresher course in de-escalation techniques and ways to deal with passengers who have hidden disabilities, such as mental health issues. Within three years, all full-time drivers will take part in the program, with a third of the full-time force participating each year.
There’s no refresher course planned for part-time drivers, Desmond said, but the agency is considering it.
A Metro spokesperson said the agency employs approximately 1,700 full-time drivers and 1,000 part-time. Averill and Frechin both drive part-time.
Frechin said that on some routes, making it to the final stop with enough time to use the restroom depends on optimal conditions: It’s sunny, the lights are all green and every customer uses an ORCA card.
But even on good days there’s no guarantee. He said that on a recent problem-free route, by the time he finished checking the bus and locking up, he was four minutes late. And he still had to go the bathroom.
“There’s just not enough time in the schedule,” Frechin said.