Too few bathroom breaks drove bus drivers to adult diapers

An upcoming report from the Department of Labor and Industries is expected to call Metro out for not giving drivers enough access to bathrooms.
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An upcoming report from the Department of Labor and Industries is expected to call Metro out for not giving drivers enough access to bathrooms.

The state Department of Labor and Industries has determined King County Metro failed to provide unrestricted bathroom access for its drivers, according to an Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587 representative. Neal Safrin, vice president and assistant business representative of Amalgamated Transit Union, also told Crosscut that L&I also found the transit agency did not provide water, soap and paper towels at all of its rest stops — a less serious violation.

The lack of bathroom facilities has gotten so severe, according to Safrin, vehicle maintenance crews have told him they annually replace 60 urine-soaked driver seats. Metro employs about 2,600 drivers.

L&I spokesman Tim Church declined to confirm the results of the agency's inspection. "We had a final meeting with Metro to spell out the results of what we found and we are finalizing those results," Church said. If Safrin's claims are correct, that could involve issuing a citation to Metro, which typically includes a fine. The agency would then have 15 business days to appeal. According to Church, even if an agency does appeal, it is not excused from fixing any problems.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In September, Switzer told Crosscut, “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.”

Safrin said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the state’s findings. "All the drivers know it is a significant problem," Safrin said, "but whether L&I would acknowledge it, I really didn’t know."

The six-month open inspection into Metro driver access to bathrooms began in May, in response to a complaint received by L&I. Crosscut's earlier report is here. Metro initially reduced route layovers between trips following a 2009 audit. That meant turnaround times — used for bathroom breaks in some cases — shrunk to five minutes or less.

Drivers found ways to cope. “We’ve had drivers wear Depends diapers,” said Metro operator Hal Poor, a former ATU shop steward. “We’ve had operators carry a jar for urination." According to Poor, drivers sometimes stand by the back door to use it in order to escape the lens of the video cameras aboard many buses. (Get caught doing so, however, and you could be slapped with a major infraction.)

“We’ve got pregnant women who are still driving. You know what kind of pressure that puts on your bladder. We have gentlemen 60 or older. They can’t hold it anymore,” said Poor.

Metro operators have suffered from urinary tract infections and some have voluntarily restricted their fluid intake, due to a paucity of drinking water facilities and bathrooms along their routes, Safrin said. Also, inadequate access to restrooms has forced some drivers to hold their water, resulting in lost elasticity to their bladders, causing urine leakage.

The L&I investigation found lack of available restrooms to be even more acute late at night. “Not all, but many Starbucks are official Metro rest stops,” Safrin noted. Most though close at 8 or 9 o’clock. As for using restrooms in bars? “It’s not acceptable,” Safrin said. “It looks bad,” — as if the driver stopped in for a drink. A 25-year veteran of the road, Safrin was once was falsely accused of that.

Metro’s contract guarantees a five-minute break between runs, but also states Metro shall “schedule” at least a 15-minute layover on assignments exceeding five hours. According to Safrin, that language reads more like "a hope and a prayer.” (A proposed Metro contract rejected by drivers in September would have enshrined that 15 minute break.)

“How guaranteed is the 15 minute break if you want to stay on schedule and you’re 12 minutes late?” asked Poor. “It’s on paper, but if you get caught in traffic, it doesn’t mean you’re getting it.” Bus routes become clogged on Mariner or Seahawks game days, or when food banks are open along certain routes and riders haul their loaded carts onto the coaches.

“In some cases, you can try to eat a sandwich and try to go to the bathroom, but you see people waiting in the cold and wet [at the bus stop],” said Poor, who added drivers feel protective of riders. “Once you open up the bus for passengers, you can’t leave the bus.”

That’s because, “if you (as a rider) know what you’re doing, you could start the bus up and leave,” Poor explained

And some official Metro restrooms are located away from where drivers park their coaches. At The Landing in Renton, drivers must walk a couple blocks to Panera Bread, which takes two or three minutes each way. A 10-minute break can leave little time if the restroom is crowded, said Poor.

This past fall, Metro reached record ridership. At almost the same time, it began cutting routes, following 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 service.

Then, earlier this month, with a slightly sunnier financial outlook, Seattle voters approved Proposition 1, which accomplished much the same thing for the Emerald City. While that vote came too late to stop November cutbacks, Metro shelved trims for February and June 2015.

And thanks to a strategic plan approved by the King County Council, any new transit revenue will be used to relieve overcrowding and on routes where buses are running chronically late. “If there are overloads, they will run more buses. In other cases, they will increase the amount of running times for routes,” said Safrin — potentially helping drivers to find time for breaks.


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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.