Editor's Note: This story updated Monday, Nov. 24 at 11:30 a.m.
King County Metro disciplined its drivers for running late because of time they spent either using a bathroom or searching for one. That's according to a six-month-long open inspection by the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I).
At least two Metro operators received minor infractions which were documented by letters placed in their personnel files for arriving late at stops. The drivers explanations “were either not believed or discounted,” said Neal Safrin, vice-president and assistant business representative of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587. About 2,600 Metro drivers belong to the local.
“If you get enough minor infractions in the same category, you can get a suspension,” Safrin said. “The driver who filed the L&I claim that triggered the investigation was part of the citation’s determination that drivers were disciplined for using the restroom and falling behind schedule.”
Both disciplined divers are middle-aged men who, noted Safrin, often suffer from an enlarged prostate, which can cause a more frequent and urgent need to urinate.
The department fined Metro $3,500 for failing to provide its transit operators with unrestricted access to bathroom facilities at all hours on each service route, and for not locating restrooms at the end of each route within a distance that could be reached during the drivers' scheduled turnaround times. L&I considers this a serious violation.
“The fine is certainly high enough to get the attention of King County Metro,” said Safrin.
Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer affirmed that the transit agency, “takes this basic need seriously. All operators have the absolute right to stop their bus when they need to use a restroom. We will be working to improve our current network of more than 280 restroom facilities for operators fixing any gaps that exist.”
Safrin hoped union reps would meet with Metro officials this week to begin formulating a remediation plan.
The state also cited Metro for not providing hot and cold running water, paper towels and hand soap at its Porta-Potty facility at the Othello Terminal, and at each of its comfort stations and bathrooms. No penalty was attached to this violation.
The L&I Citation confirms an earlier Crosscut report that the state agency planned to penalize King County Metro for failing to provide unrestricted bathroom access for its drivers Crosscut first reported on L&I’s investigation into Metro restroom access in September.
The L & I report noted that, “Employees could suffer adverse health effects or injuries if they are prevented from using the toilet or if the toilets are not available when needed.”
Indeed, Metro operators have suffered urinary tract infections and other health problems related to bathroom access. Maintenance workers annually replace 60 urine-soaked driver seats, according to the ATU, Local 587. Some of the 2,600 Metro drivers wear adult diapers, others carry jars to urinate into, out of sight of the video cameras installed on many buses.
Safrin said drivers have been complaining for decades about too few and inconveniently-located bathrooms. Even so, breaks used to be long enough to reach the available facilities. Then the Great Recession hit and with it, came reduced sales tax proceeds that Metro depends upon for at least half its operating revenue.
Metro tightened up its schedules following a 2009 audit, which called for abbreviated layovers at the ends of routes to lessen service cuts. That meant shorter driver breaks, in some cases five minutes or less. If buses were running behind schedule, drivers could either keep their passengers waiting or hold it. In some cases, designated Metro restrooms sit blocks away from where drivers parked their buses.
Meanwhile, ridership increased this fall to an all-time high, as some service cuts were made. Earlier this year, King County voters rejected a ballot measure that would have provided increased revenue for transit and roads, but Seattle voters approved a similar funding mechanism in November. “We anticipate that Prop. 1 bus service slated to be added in Seattle will improve schedule reliability, in line with our Service Guidelines, which further helps operators get the break time they need,” Metro stated.
Metro’s comfort station network consists of more than 280 restrooms along 200 routes. Of those, about 50 restrooms are Metro owned and maintained. Others are located at public facilities, but most are inside private businesses, according to Metro.
Operator route books list and map these stations. But finding available restrooms becomes harder late at night, when designated comfort stations – many are inside Starbucks stores – close for the evening.
“We are creating an action plan to identify gaps within this network and work to fill those gaps by identifying locations and creating agreements for use of restroom facilities,” Metro stated. “A Metro staff person will ensure the ongoing availability of restrooms along all of our routes and will work directly with operators to make sure their needs are met. We also will perform a comprehensive update of the status of all existing facilities along our routes so we have a clear understanding of what’s available, including hours of operation.”
Metro pledged to regularly update its operators with written information regarding restroom availability throughout its service area. “Longer term, we’ll also look at the feasibility of adding more Metro-owned restrooms … if other alternative facilities are not adequate,” said the agency.
Union rep Safrin said any abatement plan also should include new contract language to address bathroom access rights for drivers.
Metro must correct the two violations by December 22, or possibly face additional fines, according to the L&I citation. If the agency can't comply, it must send an abatement plan with specific dates and details to the state investigator. Metro may request an extension, but the state must receive it before the deadline for fixing the problem of inaccessible restrooms. To receive additional time, Metro must describe steps it is taking to fix the violation, why it can’t correct the hazard by the deadline and how it will protect its employees until that violation is corrected.
“If we do not receive written confirmation you have corrected the hazards, we will take follow-up action, which may include additional penalties,” the citation stated. “If you provide us with false information, you may face criminal penalties.” L&I also warned Metro that, “Using any information obtained during this inspection as a means or reason for employee disciplinary action would be considered discrimination and a violation of the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act.
Metro has 15 days to appeal the citation.