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Bus drivers need bathroom breaks too

Metro coaches will grow more crowded as the first scheduled cutbacks take place at September’s end. This follows the April defeat of a county ballot initiative that would have increased sales taxes and car tab fees to help pay for roads and bus services. At near-peak overall ridership, Metro will shelve 28 routes, as it tries “to match service levels with revenues coming in,” said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer. Seattle voters in November will consider a ballot measure imposing an annual $60 vehicle fee and a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to help fund transit.

Meanwhile, Metro drivers’ Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587, is scheduled to vote September 10th on its latest contract proposal, with working conditions among the top concerns. In 2009, a Metro audit called for reducing layovers at the ends of routes before return trips, in order to lessen service cuts. That meant turnaround times — used for bathroom breaks — in some cases shrunk to five minutes or less.

Said retired Metro driver Jay Hamilton, “We were not being used properly because our breaks were too long, which was great if you were a machine, not so great if you weren’t.”

If the bus is running even slightly behind schedule, “You can either go to the bathroom and be late for your next trip — with the possibility of customers complaining or supervisors saying, ‘How come you left late for your last trip?’” said Michael Spence, a retired Metro driver and author of a new book of poetry set onboard Metro coaches. 

“It’s a safety thing,” Spence added. “Do you want people driving a thousand pound vehicle through traffic and be constantly worried” about emptying their bladders?

I spoke with Metro driver Hal Poor on a recent Saturday afternoon while he was on a break, waiting to use a Metro restroom. “There’s one bathroom for 15 buses and everyone is taking their turn,” said Poor, a former ATU shop steward. “This is a weekend. On weekdays, it’s even worse.”

Neal Safrin, vice president and assistant business representative and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 said there are very few, if any, rest stops used by Metro drivers that contain more than two bathrooms.

“No question, working conditions since the audit went downhill,” said Safrin. The 2010 contract guaranteed a minimum five- minute break between runs. “Guaranteed breaks have been significantly increased in the current proposal,” Safrin said, declining to offer specifics.

Safrin urged members to approve the contract. “The great majority of gains in 100 years (of ATU’s existence) are preserved by this tentative agreement. If we go to interest arbitration, much of the bedrock of the contract will be at risk,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Labor and Industries has launched an “open inspection” regarding Metro driver access to restrooms, following a complaint it received, said Tim Church, department spokesman. Bus drivers are being questioned and state rules and guidelines examined.

Asked for comment, Metro spokesperson Switzer said, "We actively monitor and manage our comfort station program to ensure that bus operators have access to clean and convenient facilities. We’re cooperating with L&I on this issue and will make improvements where needed."

The Department of Labor and Industries has until November 30 — six months from the inspection’s inception — to complete its findings. It could either determine the original complaint lacks validity, or cite Metro for violations, with fines attached.

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