Bus drivers tell King County Council they need more bathroom breaks and emergency training
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.
CommentsDear Mr. Desmond, There you go, once again, making it sound like all people with "hidden disabilities" are a potential danger to bus drivers. Shame on you. Read the ADA. Read DSM-V. And, where did the whole idea of training on "invisible disabilities" come from? Why it came from me, after a horrendous experience with, as you and his direct supervisor admit, a driver with very poor customer service skills. Do you remember the letter you wrote me apologizing for him? And another letter from his direct supervisor apologizing for him. That is where this training idea came about. The driver was disrespectful of the rules regarding service dogs, as so many of your drivers are, and probably still are, even though they've had many operations bulletins and "the Book" to tell them what the rules actually are. How can drivers expect protection from complaints if they can't even follow their own rules, and don't read operations bulletins as they are required to. But you, Mr. Desmond, take my idea of training drivers regarding "invisible disabilities" and flip it around, so that it is not a training to recognize and help those individuals, but rather as a means of harassing many innocent people. You admitted to me in an Email that the shooter "had a history" of known problems with bus operators. Then why wasn't there better response. How can you say that drivers aren't front line responders when they have a gun in their face? How long would it take METRO police to get there? You make no sense. METRO drivers obviously have to be frontline responders, because sometimes, things happen, and there is no time to get the police. And be honest about where the "invisible disabilities" training came from. Why wasn't me Service Dog trainer asked to be a consultant on the project even? She is not into recognizing dangerous people, but helping people with disabilities of the "invisible" sort. The shooter, was apparently not "invisible" at all, since, as you said to me, "he had a history." You just don't seem to get it. Henry- people with hidden disabilities ARE potential dangers to bus drivers. If someone has a mental condition that makes that person unstable, they might be more likely to escalate an encounter with a bus driver or another passenger. Henry and Ben, thanks for your comments, especially about the need for more training of bus drivers as first responders. Henry hit the nail on the head about us being the first one there. I am sorry to hear that some drivers may not be the best on the service dog question. Without knowing the particulars, it is hard to comment. However, in our Open Letter to the County Council, we drivers are asking for the Public-Safety Partnership to be restored. This encouraged communication between drivers and riders. It enhances safety and service. Finally, the Metro budget crisis that GM Desmond cites is real, and yet manufactured. Why is the City and Sound Transit spending hundreds of millions of dollars on street car expansions -- some of it to provide duplicate service -- yet the politicians can't find money for Metro bus service??? All we get are fare hikes and service cuts and elimination of recovery time ... so the buses run late. The politicians say it is "different pots of money" but they are all the one's who make these decisions. It's not like this "capital" vs. operations division came from God or something. Put the money into bus service, roll back the fare hikes, and expand the street car later -- when times are better. Oh, and stop the pricey street car studies!!! Ben, with all due respect, you are a bigot. Not ALL people with hidden disabilities are dangerous. That is my point. In fact it is a small percentage of people with mental disabilities that are dangerous. And the shooter was a known entity as being dangerous. He, in fact, was not in any way "invisible." Mr. Desmond knew of his history, drivers did as well. He was not depressed. He was psychotic. Do you know the difference between psychosis and neurosis? If not, please learn. If you were my employer, you'd have a lawsuit on your hands faster than you can label your next door neighbor a "danger to society" because he is agoraphobic. You are, as is commonly referred to by offices such as OCR, discriminating based on disability. Most people with hidden disabilities have illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD and are NOT at all a danger to other people. Far from it. All I ask is that you not be so prejudiced and ignorant as to lump us all into the Psycho Killer category. That's a bit like Hitler's Germany. Let's not go there, please. I am so insulted to be thought bad of just because I am depressed. I have an "invisible disability." I am incredibly sad most of the time. A lot of people are, and they are no danger to you or the general public, and we shouldn't be judged to be "a danger" anymore than you Ben (that is unless you are a danger - you are a danger in your way to a just society). Just don't be a bigot about mental disabilities. A lot of incredible individuals throughout history had mental illness. I encourage you to look at the NAMI website and learn something. People with your singular thinking make this world a sadder, less accepting place. Sincerely, Henry And, regardless of the way that a driver abused me (he probably had anger management problems in general (oh, look, "invisible")) He was, as I learned later, a substitute driver and probably got the least amount of training of any operator. Not his fault. You have to be trained to deal with stressful situations. He probably wasn't even given time to thoroughly go through "the Book." Demond's "first line responders" (the police) don't just teleport in 1 second to the scene of a man holding a gun to a driver's face. We're not quite there yet in our teleporting technology, it is not even an iPhone app yet. GM Desmond is not supporting his drivers. That is clear. He needs to own up to his responsibility, as GM, too make sure his drivers are as safe as can be and that means more training on things like what to do when someone puts a gun to your face. What to do when another rider physically attacks a blind rider (he could have pressed the emergency button, or called the METRO police immediately. "The Book" says to do that. OK, even what would be the best option if a baby with a smelly diaper came on board. Mr. Desmond is being cheap in all the wrong places. Invest in your drivers! They can make or break a person's day. They will be happier with better training and support, and that will make your ridership happier. And you'd probably get less complaints, than the over 4000 per year that you get (sounds so much worse, but real, than "1.5 per driver per annum"). And breaks? Please. Aren't there laws about those things in the Fair Labor Standards Act? I don't want a driver, who is hungry, or tired and grumpy, or uncomfortable because he has to pee driving my bus. That, besides being inhumane, can lead to poor customer service. I wouldn't be at my best with people if I had to "hold it." Mr. Desmond needs to buy a vowel. He's stuck. One problem with the service animal issue is that any person with a violent dog can call it a service animal (no proof required) and the driver has to allow it on the bus where it sits there in the middle of the aisle, sometimes off leash, intimidating and scaring people. Dogs may relieve anxiety in some but they also create anxiety in others. Unfortunately for the disabled community there are some passengers who abuse the service animal exemption. They should be lobbying for certification and an easy to see tag to attach to the animal. I understand the issue too well. There should be real certification for real service dogs. It is a big problem. As a legitimate service dog owner, I really resent the "cheaters." There is however, in the METRO rule book that a dog (service or not) that is posing a threat can be "kicked off" the bus. Which is totally valid, and would weed out the cheaters somewhat. I have the rule book, I know. If a dog's behavior is threatening or intimidating, he can be forced off the bus. Rule 4.30 "If a service animal's behavior threatens the safety of you or your passengers, call the coordinator" So, it is not true that a "bad dog," even though called a service dog, or even a trained service dog, has to be allowed on the bus. Driver's should be aware of this, and perhaps some aren't. We can try to change the law, but in the meantime we have to abide by the rules. People who need service dogs and have a legitimate one need to be able to ride without fear of abuse from a driver. In my situation with the abusive driver. He just did not know the rules for where a service dog can be placed on the bus. My dog is completely docile and well... sort of "invisible." People often remark that they didn't know there was a dog under the seat when I get off and lift the seat up for my dog to get up. But that's me. And that's my real service dog. The law says that you can actually ask a person what tasks your dog does to assist with your disability. Though METRO doesn't allow this. I have been asked this in other situations. A legitimate service dog is trained to do things specifically related to the disability. It is however, illegal, to ask what a person's disability is, or prove by demonstration that the dog can perform those tasks. ADA law is ADA law, and it is there for a reason, but again, Bus Operator's have Rule 4.30 about Service Dogs, where they can do something about a claimed "service dog" behaving badly. To Ben: Statistically, most criminals do not have mental disabilities. So by your reasoning, all non-disabled people pose a threat. I suppose that includes you. Henry is right about being able to disallow access, even to legitimate service dog, if that dog is behaving in a bad way. For example, I work in a library, and basically, if a service dog is barking, or jumps at staff, or is just out of control, we exclude the service dog or "service dog." We don't need to make the distinction. Barking or other disruptive behavior can lead to exclusion of a service animal. It is absolutely legal according to ADA. However, if you are allergic or just afraid of dogs in general, but the dog is behaving, there is no cause of action for excluding a service dog. The onus is on you to find a way to deal with a well behaved dog that might cause you discomfort. Allowing a well-behaved service dog trumps another persons discomfort with dogs in general, including allergies. This is where cheaters really get away with it. If their dog is well behaved, but hasn't had special service training, or the owner does not have a disability, they will get away with having their dog allowed in places as a service dog. Pretty much, it all boils down to actual behavior of the dog. Service dogs (real ones), never behave badly. But some other dogs might never behave badly as well. So in a way, what's the difference? (I said "in a way"). But if you are on a bus and any animal is posing a real safety threat. Tel the driver to call the coordinator (who then advises) and certainly can have the police come, or whatever is needed for the safety of passengers. Also dogs, or feet, or anything, are not supposed to block the ailse of the bus. That is a rule. Hmm. So I wonder how METRO gets away with standing room only. Henry is also spot on about this applying to METRO.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.