So by now you’ve probably seen in the news that Neil McFarlane, General Manager of TriMet has stated that despite the terms of the union contract which would maintain the status quo until a new contract was agreed upon, TriMet union employees are going to have to start paying some of their health care coverage. I’m not even sure he can do that or if it will end up being struck down (like AC Transit) since it seems to go against the mutually agreed upon union contract, but that’s a story for another time.
But I noticed this little exchange over at the Oregonian (summarized)
Al M: [D]on’t blame the rank and file employees for the health care mess, blame the insurance companies. We are getting killed by our occupation. Does anybody think for one minute that the transit workers should just allow our company to kill us while they spend BILLIONS on toy trains? I don’t think so.
NewsHound007: They are killing you? Exactly how, pray tell?
Seeking: Ummm, driving a bus is that hard ? In Afghanistan maybe, certainly not in Portland. It is sickening and amazing when you read postings from the union employees. They are so far removed from the reality of the private sector. Paid medical ? What employer gives that ? I can’t believe these guys want $25 an hour FOR DRIVING A FRIGGEN BUS!!!!!
Afghanistan risks and bus driving risks are two different animals, but that doesn’t mean that this job won’t kill you too. There’s years’ worth of research done by people much smarter than me (and maybe even smarter than you, and other people who comment on Oregonian articles!) who provide pretty solid evidence of the health risks and mortality rates of working as a public transit operator.
I’ll even give you citations, because I am that thorough. I’ve skimmed these articles but haven’t had time to read them yet, and this is far from an exhaustive search.
- M. Anthony Machin and Nancy Hoare’s “The role of workload and driver coping styles in predicting bus drivers’ need for recovery, positive and negative affect, and physical symptoms” in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 2008 Volume 21 number 4, pages 359-375.
- Kjeld B Poulsen’s “The Healthy Bus project in Denmark: need for an action potential assessment” in Health Promotion International, Volume 19 number 2, 2004
- Sybil Carrere, Gary W Evans, M. N. Palsane, and Mary Rivas “Job strain and occupational stress among urban public transit operators in Journal of Occupational Psychology (1991) Volume 64 pages 305-316.
- John L. M. Tse, Rhoma Flin, and Kathryn Mearns “Bus driver well-being review: 50 years of research” in Transportation Research part F 9 (2006) 89-114:
But wait, there’s more!
Did you know that the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology dedicated an entire issue (in 1998, volume 3, number 2) to the topic of the effects of being a public transit operator on the human body? I didn’t either, but I do now. Here’s a sampling of the articles in there.
- From Gunnar Aronsson & Anita Rissler’s “Psychophysiological Stress Reactions in Female and Male Urban Bus Drivers”
- From Leif W Rydstedt, Gunn Johansson, & Gary Evans’s “The Human Side of the Road: Improving the Working Conditions of Urban Bus Drivers”
- From Birgit A Greiner, Nklas Krause, David Ragland, & June M. Fisher’s “Objective Stress Factors, Accidents, & Absenteeism in Transit Operators: A Theoretical Framework and Empirical Evidence”
- From Theo F. Miejman & Michiel A. J. Kompier “Bussy Business: How Urban Bus Drivers Cope with Time Pressure, Passengers, and Traffic Safety”
I can provide the entire reference lists from these articles if anyone is interested in the topic. I have full copies of these articles, courtesy of a couple of students who were willing to help me out with getting all of this, but I don’t think I can post the full articles here since that’s probably copyright violation of some kind or another. So far I’ve been able to write here without drawing the wrath of TriMet… I don’t really need to invoke the wrath of copyright holders.
So yeah, bus and rail operators get decent health benefits. You know why?
Because their jobs kill them!
Like a lot of TriMet operators, I know what it’s like working a desk job because I’ve done that. I find it interesting that people who work desk jobs are so quick to judge transit operators, considering all of the luxuries desk workers take for granted:
- Generally speaking, you can use the restroom whenever you need.
- Hungry? You can also use the vending machine/cafeteria/coffee maker/etc pretty much whenever you need to
- Your work may be stressful, but the odds of someone dying if you mess up are generally extremely low. So you don’t have that hanging over your head.
- Related to that, if you didn’t sleep well the night before, dozing off at your desk could be embarrassing if you’re caught, but it won’t kill anyone.
- Your office is probably climate-controlled, and you have little exposure to fumes, dust, or people who physically threaten your safety, hit you, or spit on you.
- Either you or someone you know has probably spent some time on the job checking personal email, using Facebook, watching Youtube videos, etc
Your bus and rail operators don’t have these luxuries. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get to the end of the line with just enough time to run to the bathroom and run back just to do it all over again. For more on this, read this fantastic piece over at Puget Sound Transit Operators.
Consider these points as well -
- Have you ever made a long road trip where you drove 8-10 hours in a day? How did you feel? Was it physically rough on your body? Were you able to take breaks when you needed to? Did you drive 8-10 hours again the next day? And the next? And the day after that?
- Have you ever ridden a bus (or train) that smelled like wet dog or death or raw sewage and you couldn’t wait to just go home and get in a shower because of how disgusting that bus made you feel? Aren’t you glad you were able to get out of that situation?
- Don’t you just love riding the bus during cold/flu season when the guy sitting in front of you sounds like he’s dying of tuberculosis? Good thing you’re not on that bus all day exposed to everything that passes through!
- How often has your work environment maintained temperatures over 100°F for the duration of your shift?
Is driving a bus the worst job in the world? No, but it’s physically and psychologically demanding, and operators earn every bit of the compensation they receive. And the fact is, TriMet operator benefits are not a free ride, though didn’t that make a wonderfully sensationalistic headline in the Oregonian? Operators work for their pay and benefits, and they work hard.
Hey Joseph Rose, every couple of weeks, do you get free money from the Oregonian?
See, all this time I’ve been assuming that you work for your wages/benefits, and then you get appropriately compensated. It seems you don’t think that’s how it works for operators, so how does it work for you? Am I wrong?
Operators work hard for their compensation too, and a lot of operators can show the physical damage done to their bodies to prove it. Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to keep operators as healthy as possible?
And yeah, I can already predict the kneejerk response to this – “If operating sucks so much, quit!” The thing is, operating doesn’t suck, not all aspects of it anyway. A lot of it is pretty great. But sometimes it almost seems like TriMet is a small child that wants a puppy, or in their case, trains (and sometimes buses). Sure getting a puppy is a lot of fun, everyone loves puppies, you can play with it and take it for walks and stuff. But you also have to take care of it, feed it, bring it to the vet even when that’s expensive, and clean up after it. Kids who get a puppy learn that not all the aspects of having a pet are as fun as playing with it. In the same way, given TriMet’s dedication to expanding rail service, they’re going to need operators (and maintenance workers, and Controllers/Dispatchers, and supervisors, etc) to run it. And they’re going to have to take care of those operators if they want to push service expansions, because that’s part of owning that transportation system, even though taking care of your employees doesn’t give you nearly as many good photo ops as a new rail line opening or a shiny new train will.
Operators have every right to be upset about the way this was handled, because not only does it look like it’s going against the terms of the union contract, but the media plays it up as just a bunch of overpaid workers ending their “free ride” and of course the public is only too-willing to jump in and bash operators who just want to do their jobs and get what was mutually agreed as compensation for their work.
Yeah, thanks a lot for that.