“Our workers are exhausted,” says Bill Bradley, executive board officer of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. ATU is bargaining with Lane Transit District management over a contract that could address some of the biggest obstacles facing bus operators, addressing worker mental health and wages.
“LTD does not comment about personnel matters, including ongoing contract negotiations,” writes Pat Walsh, marketing and communications director at LTD.
With this contract, the union is seeking to eliminate forced overtime. “The district has had a habit of forcing people in on their days off, through the threat of discipline,” Bradley says. “Meanwhile, these transit operators are not getting the rest, recuperation, time to spend with their families and kids — they have no control over their personal life.” This is causing not only hiring issues but retention issues, Bradley explains.
“We have drivers that haven’t been able to go to a family funeral because they were forced out of their day off,” says a bus operator, speaking anonymously to prevent employer retaliation. The bus operator, who has been working for LTD for 15 years, says she lost a pregnancy due to forced overtime. “I miscarried, being out there on the road.”
Forced overtime is detrimental to passengers as well as drivers, she explains. “When you’ve got a driver who is on his sixth day of work, working 14 hours a day — you’re putting the riders and the driver in danger,” she says. “We’re just machines out there working until we fail.”
Bradley reveals that since COVID, there has been a rise in verbal assaults, physical assaults, even spitting directed towards transit operators. While he maintains that verbal assaults are the most common, he is concerned about the rise in abuse.
“We’ve had a driver get beaten into a concussion,” the bus operator says. “We’ve had numerous drivers swung at, hit.” The bus operator described a time when a passenger rushed her, tearing through the caution tape that separated the operator from the riders. She made a call to the administration, hoping to get support. The rider tired himself out after ripping through the tape and went to the front of the bus to smear his pizza on the windshield and scream profanities at the operator.
The bus operator felt unsafe, as that situation could have easily ended in a physical attack. Despite the call, administration didn’t check in with her about what happened or to see if she had been harmed. Her supervisor apologized for never following up weeks after the incident had taken place. “We don’t have a support system we can plug into besides each other,” the bus operator says.
The bus operator reveals that unfortunately situations like the one described are commonplace. The recent death of passenger Travis Allen Sanders has only made bus operators feel more unsafe, she explains. “We were headed for this situation,” she says.
According to Bradley, these working conditions have taken a toll on the mental health of the transit workers and made the job infinitely more stressful. “We need to find a way to support employees during these trying times, with de-escalation training, crisis intervention training and more support for mental health care services through our health care plans,” Bradley says. And, at the very least “guaranteed leave when you’re attacked by a rider.”
Driving a bus has become more specialized, with operators learning EmX buses in addition to fixed-route models, but wages have continued to stagnate. “We’re investing in training, and that needs to be recognized in the wage,” Bradley says. LTD does not offer a competitive salary compared to private industry. “They can work for Lane Transit and make 21 bucks an hour, $28 at best, or work for UPS and make 40 bucks an hour,” Bradley says.
Currently, bus operators cannot even afford to live in Eugene-Springfield and are being pushed out to Cottage Grove, Veneta and Junction City by rising housing costs, he says. “I think we need to reposition these jobs in the market and make them the solid middle class jobs that they once were,” Bradley says.
ATU is fighting to adequately address these issues in the bargaining process, but it is up against a reluctant LTD administration. In a bargaining session on Nov. 10, the union was met with immediate resistance. “LTD showed us their economic proposal and it fell way short,” Bradley says. “It doesn’t address any of the working conditions issues that are causing our workers to struggle like forced overtime, split shifts and lack of control over their schedule.”
According to Bradley, “Lane Transit canceled the Nov. 30 session and showed up late with no offer to the Dec. 5 session.” The next bargaining session will be Jan. 30, seven months after the expiration of the contract.
“We went from being a bus company to being an administration company,” the bus operator says. The company isn’t concerned with “the health and safety of our drivers or our riders.”
Discontent among transit workers has increased in recent years. Worker morale plunged at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when LTD decided to lay off workers, causing them to lose their income and, crucially, their health insurance.
“Ultimately, they were recalled, but to be treated like that by an employer when they got tens of millions in funds to retain services — that was not a good move in terms of worker morale,” Bradley says. And since this massive layoff, LTD has had increased difficulties recruiting and retaining bus operators.
“There’s been a habit of putting service out to the community without the resources to actually provide said service,” Bradley says. LTD is offering only 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels of service, but even doing that is coming at a significant cost to transit workers. And it’s uncertain if those levels will ever get back to what they were pre-pandemic because of how difficult it has been to recruit bus operators, he explains.
But ATU remains hopeful about the outcome of the bargaining. According to Bradley, “There’s been good contracts settled for transit workers across the state” in recent years. These contracts in Portland, Bend and Astoria have been settled on time and with wage increases and benefit increases.
“Our workers feel disrespected. They see other agencies settling on time, handing out retention bonuses as well as wage increases. We’re not seeing that kind of effort or urgency from Lane Transit, ” Bradley says. It’s been five years since this contract was agreed upon, back in 2017. He says that LTD management has the belief that if they wait around long enough, things will fall in their favor.
Bradley says, “Hopefully, they will meet the moment, find some urgency and treat the workers fairly with a respectful deal.”
This article has been updated to reflect Sanders was not an off-duty bus operator. We regret the error.