Metro was issued a citation by the Department of Labor and Industries last week following complaints of drivers having to relieve themselves in coffee cups, wearing diapers or even losing control of their bladders in their seats. But after hearing about drivers’ break schedules, not everyone understands how this can be a real problem.
KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson invited Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond onto the show to discuss the challenges drivers might be facing. Desmond outlined the typical break schedule for Monson.
He explained that a few years ago, drivers had an average break of 20 minutes per route. But he said that in 2009, that was reduced to a scheduled 16 minute break after a council audit found drivers in the King County Metro system were taking longer breaks than drivers in other systems.
However, Desmond said that traffic and other factors may mean less time for drivers at the terminal.
“Because we’re running on the streets that we don’t control, buses get delayed. If you arrive at your terminal late, you may not get all the break time that the schedule allows,” said Desmond. “Really, therein lies the problem. That’s what we’ve reduced to save money. We’ve saved about $12.5 million to do that, but unfortunately, it left our service a little less reliable and it made the work life on our transit operators a little bit tougher.”
Monson wanted to know how long drivers have to wait between breaks or how long a typical route takes to complete.
Desmond explained route lengths vary quite a bit, but, “A trip from terminal to terminal, a really long trip might be 45 minutes, 55 minutes.”
Desmond said that is a long time in the seat, but Monson said he’s sat a lot longer than that in traffic jams.
“If we’re talking about a maximum 45-minute trip and they get anywhere from a five to 16-minute break at the beginning and/or end of these trips, it defies logic giving the traffic jams that I sit in in my car, and the fact that I’ve never soiled myself while driving my car,” Monson said. “Is this a real problem or is this something the union is just completely fabricating?”
Desmond said he didn’t want to get into a conversation about whether people are soiling their seats, but said there is a real issue of short break times.
“The reality is many operators arrive at their terminal late and they don’t necessarily have enough time to both take a break and start their next trip on time. It puts them in a difficult position of ‘Do I inconvenience my customers or do I go and relieve myself?'” said Desmond, adding that is the type of thing they are working on and trying to fix.
“Our operators deserve this, they deserve a break. They work really, really hard behind the seat of that bus,” he said.
Monson still wondered if the whole thing isn’t motivated by something else.
“If 60 guys have soiled their seats, I’m wondering if they’re doing that to make a statement, rather than out of absolute necessity. Is this some kind of a leverage ploy to try to get more money out of us?”
Bottom line, Desmond said drivers have communicated publicly at council meetings regarding these issues.
“We have these discussions with the union all the time. It was a major point of our labor negotiations with the amalgamated transit unions. The reality is there is a problem in the field,” Desmond said.
But Monson still had questions.
“Is one of the possible solutions telling the drivers, ‘Stop peeing your pants in your seats or you’ll be fired?’ I cannot believe, given the break schedule, you’ve outlined for me that you can’t just order them and tell them, ‘If you can’t handle this job with this break schedule, we’re going to get rid of you.'”
“Again, I don’t even want to get into a discussion of whether people are actually urinating in their seat or not,” Desmond said. “The issue is we have an obligation by state law and we have an obligation in our labor contract, and frankly, we just have an obligation because they’re our employees – to make sure they have enough break time. We will continue to work with our excellent transit operators and our union to make sure that that is available within the context of the finances of this organization.”