On a frigid, Friday night in mid-January, a No. 36 Metro bus driver finished another run downtown. He needed to find a toilet before his next trip southward. Prostate cancer surgery had weakened his bladder, so he took advantage of every opportunity to empty it. With no downtown restrooms on Metro’s official “comfort station” list, the middle-aged driver stopped by the McDonald’s at 6th Avenue and Virginia Street, a commonly used driver pit stop. But twice he was thwarted — at 7:15 p.m. and again about two hours later. Both times, he told state Labor & Industries investigators, “there was a sleeper inside the men’s restroom stall in a wheelchair.”
So, he climbed back onto his coach and made another run south to the route’s end at 39th and Myrtle. By that time, he recalled, “I was desperate to use the toilet.”
But the driver didn’t dare enter the unanchored port-a-potty sitting on the sidewalk there. Metro’s 'comfort station' No 617 at 3900 South Myrtle Street is infamous as a dangerous, darkened and scary rest stop and Metro operators had witnessed local rowdies launching the portable onto its side.
So instead, on that wintery night, the No. 36 operator hurried to the nearest Safeway — just about the only other facility available at that hour. Unfortunately, the time he'd spent searching for a restroom downtown and the extra jaunt to the grocery had pushed him behind schedule, making him late for his next route.
When a rider complained, Metro ordered the No. 36 operator to receive eight hours of in-person retraining, which can involve classroom time or field instruction. Now, the operator had a letter in his file for a minor infraction. Get enough of those and a suspension could result.
Sure he had been wronged, the driver contacted the state Department of Labor & Industries. When L&I asked the transit agency to respond, Metro posted its revised policy on its bulletin boards:
“Operators are not to delay service for any unauthorized or unnecessary reason. However, if you need to use a bathroom you are authorized to do so ... We also fund a full time position of 'Comfort Station Coordinator' who manages this program for our agency.” (That would turn out to be not quite true.)
Once Metro distributed its statement, the urine hit the fan, so to speak. Complaints by Metro drivers — including emails, phone calls and letters — flooded in to L&I. On May 30, the state agency began a six-month open inspection, focusing on bathroom availability, disciplinary actions for toilet use and health effects from delaying use of the facilities. The inspection consisted of interviews with drivers, Metro managers and superintendents. State sleuths also checked out some of Metro’s estimated 280 loos.
On November 25, the state agency released the more than 300 page report of its inspection, obtained by Crosscut through a public records request. A week earlier, it 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 bathrooms at the end of each route within a distance that could be reached during the drivers’ scheduled turnaround times.
L&I considers this an “egregious” violation and has required Metro to fix the problems in 30 days — or submit a timetable for doing so.
Metro was also cited for not providing hot and cold running water, paper towels and soap at all stations, including that port-a potty on South Myrtle Street.
“Time, effort and energy has not been dedicated to developing, maintaining, updating and training on a comfort station program which is useful, cost effective, productive and in compliance with regulatory requirements for King County Metro Transit Operators,” the L&I report concludes.
Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer was contrite, in a series of written responses to Crosscut queries.
“We know we can do better,” wrote Switzer. “We are committed to making sure our employees have the necessary time to use restrooms — whether they are en route or on break — and we take this basic need seriously. If certain routes still have insufficient bathrooms, Metro will find an accommodation, including expending additional resources if necessary.”
According to the L&I inspection though, Metro proved unresponsive to complaints spanning months regarding a couple of its designated comfort stations. That includes a vandalized 24-hour turn key lock located at a Shell station, resulting in drivers only being able to access the bathroom during business hours, and a Green River College building being torn down, with weekday hours only. Even though Metro’s 'comfort station people' had been notified of the college building’s limited access, they didn’t respond to requests spanning four months for a portable toilet at the site.
Further, the report concludes no designated Metro comfort stations are located in downtown Seattle. “Drivers of routes that run through downtown Seattle or terminal in downtown are expected to find a public restroom. Businesses that are open after 11 p.m. or before 6 a.m. are usually bars or a few McDonalds that are heavily used by the ‘homeless’ population,” the L&I report states.
And while Metro frowns on drivers hitting the heads in bars, that same No. 36 driver told investigators he has covered up his Metro badge on occasion before entering watering holes — to avoid a false public impression he had stopped in for a beer while on duty.
Drivers and L&I investigators used words including “filthy,” “disgusting,” “degrading” and “unsafe” to describe some of the bathrooms in Metro’s network of comfort stations.
The infamous CS 617 port-a-potty at the end of Route No. 36 received special scorn in the report. One operator noted the stench from its leaking urinal was becoming especially “unbearable” as temperatures rose in mid-May 2014. She pointed out it was filthiest from Thursdays to Sundays, in between Monday and Wednesday cleanings. Another said she refused to use any portables for fear of contracting an infection by sitting on its seat.
Instead, the report confirmed that many drivers reduce liquid intake, or wind up suffering from maladies including urinary tract or kidney infections. Some women drivers call in sick while menstruating because they need but can’t access restrooms more frequently. Some drivers have contemplated wearing, or donned adult diapers — or resorted to, “relieving themselves in ‘creative ways,’ ” the report states.
Instead of trudging to an inconveniently located restroom, operators told investigators they relieve themselves in the bellows of “accordion” buses. Drivers may fill Starbucks cups or carry screw top bottles for that purpose.
Douglas Frechin, Metro driver and an ATU shop steward, told Crosscut he found a new use for his red and black transit union mug in March, when he was stuck behind a bus trying to unload a wheelchair user, its lift wedged into the curb of the transit tunnel. “I went into the dark area, got on my knees, and peed into my coffee cup,” he admitted. “If I hadn’t, I would have peed in my pants.”
“King County Metro Transit operators are expected to provide world class customer service, a safe transportation environment, as well as on time performance while management has difficulty meeting one of our most basic workplace rights; dignified, private, clean, reliable bathroom facilities,” said Phillip Blake, a part-time Metro driver, added.
Switzer said Metro owns more than 50 of the 280 toilets in its comfort station network, and these are cleaned five to seven times a week by Metro staff. He pledged Metro would contact the outside vendor that cleans the port- a-potty at the end of No. 36 and review its cleaning schedule.
“The other restrooms in our network are either public facilities or are inside private businesses we have no control over, “ Switzer wrote. “However, we are committed to doing a better job of identifying the problem restrooms and finding more suitable facilities, as needed.”
The state inspection report noted that although most Metro management and administration started out as drivers and so are aware of these issues from the past, “most were drivers well before the 2009 service audit and resulting ‘productive’ scheduling changes.” As a result of that audit, an attempt to streamline service in the face of the Great Recession's dwindling sales tax proceeds, Metro squeezed turn-around times on routes to help preserve service. (Metro depends on these revenues for much of its funding.)
“In general, management and administration are not familiar with the real time impacts the recent service changes, route changes, squeezed time schedules and increased stressors current transit operators encounter. In short, management, administration and the ATU think the restroom/comfort station program/issue is being handled,” the L&I inspection document states.
The report also calls out the 2,700-member Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587, for failing to monitor and improve Metro’s comfort station program. "The Amalgamated Transit Union has a small blurb regarding comfort stations in their contract. However the union is not following through with reviewing new routes and identifying new CSs on new routes,” the L&I report states. “The ATU has not stepped up to take a proactive stance in regards to the CS program."
In response, ATU's safety chairperson, Brian Sherlock, said it’s Metro’s responsibility to run the program, and provided Crosscut with contract language from Article 3 of the union’s collective bargaining agreement that states in part, “Metro will arrange for adequate restrooms to be used by employees on all routes,” “Metro shall arrange for and designate restroom facilities as near as possible to each terminal of each route. Metro will identify potential restrooms for new routes and meet with the Union to review the routes prior to forwarding them” to King County Council for approval.
So who is responsible for coordinating King County Metro's comfort station program? And is it a full-time or part-time position? On the second count at least, no one seems to know. Most Metro base chiefs and superintendents believe that it’s one employee’s sole responsibility. Even the transit agency’s service quality superintendent (the comfort station program is under his direction) thinks it’s a full-time gig, according to the L&I report.
“We acknowledge there has been confusion,” wrote Metro’s Switzer. There used to be a full-time comfort station coordinator several years ago, but according to Switzer, “Over time, duties shifted to a rotating assignment position and then later incorporated into the workload of a staff person with multiple responsibilities.”
Though Switzer denied the shift was prompted by the 2009 audit, he could not say exactly when the staffing change took place.
In the meantime, veteran wheel jockeys have learned how to work the system. “Some routes are better ‘equipped’ with restrooms than others and senior drivers get first choice in choosing routes,” the report observes. “Many senior drivers pick routes based on bathroom availability and comfort, leaving newer drivers on less desirable routes.”
ATU’s safety chairperson Brian Sherlock, a more than three-decade Metro veteran, told Crosscut he creates a spreadsheet of available route assignments. “I don’t pick routes with public bathrooms. Generally they’re not that appealing. Once you get away from high-end retail, they start going downhill fast."
Metro operators “will go to extreme lengths to keep service running,” said Sherlock, recalling the young rider who recently burst into tears because she missed her connecting bus and feared losing her job. The transit system is important for getting commuters to work.
“Drivers are loathe to stop mid route with customers aboard in order to search for a public restroom within a local business,” the inspection report confirms. And, “Drivers reported being turned away from using restrooms in public businesses unless they buy something, waiting in lines for indeterminate amounts of time and having transit customers irate upon return.”
Switzer responded: “These are examples of where we need to step up and pay closer attention to our comfort station program. We appreciate L&I’s work in identifying these shortcomings and we have already begun developing an action plan to correct these problems.”