This job will kill you

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.

Cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal problems, high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones.. don’t you want to be a bus driver too?

  • 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

Heart morbidity, hypertension, prolapsed vertebral discs, AND cancer?  Not only that, but double the hospitalization risk compared to the rest of the workforce for heart disease!

  • 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.

None of this  is news to anyone who has ever worked as a transit operator.

  • 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:

5 times more likely to suffer from digestive disease compared to office workers?  You don’t say…

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”

Be a bus driver and increase your risk of early death!

  • From Leif W Rydstedt, Gunn Johansson, & Gary Evans’s “The Human Side of the Road: Improving the Working Conditions of Urban Bus Drivers”

Safety vs on-time performance, and they didn’t even mention the customer service aspect.

  • 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”

I know several operators who had to retire because of disabilities they developed on the job

  • From Theo F. Miejman & Michiel A. J. Kompier “Bussy Business: How Urban Bus Drivers Cope with Time Pressure, Passengers, and Traffic Safety”

That about sums it up nicely

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.

Boy, aren’t those pretty! Isn’t that what matters?

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.

14 responses to “This job will kill you

  1. Good thing nobody is forcing you to work at TriMet. I don’t know what the contract says, but if TriMet can legally reduce the benefits provided to its employees and wants to, they should be able to.

    Employment is a two-way street. You don’t have to like the terms, but if its legal, you have other career options.

    • Good thing nobody is forcing you to work at TriMet.
      Anticipated response, and already mentioned in the post. And not really the point, either.

      The point is that the union has repeatedly negotiated to have most of the compensation that members receive be in the form of health insurance rather than the hourly wages. Starting pay for a bus operator at TriMet is $13.83 – sure it’s more than minimum wage but no one is getting rich off of that. The reason *why* this was done is that, as has been shown over decades of research, transit operation is an occupation with severe health risks, so the interest has been in ensuring good health benefits for operators over high wages. No, no one has a gun to their head and is forced to drive a bus, but there are people that love the work and can accept the risks to their health because of the compensation they get in the form of health benefits.

      So now with that behind us, Neil makes this announcement that union employees are now going to have to start paying some of those costs – effectively getting a pay cut. That would be one thing, but my biggest issue is that this went to the media as TriMet bus drivers (and all the rest of the union workers too, but really everyone just thinks of the bus drivers) no longer getting their “free” health insurance, which has basically turned into a festival of “I’m miserable that I don’t get health insurance through my job, so no one else should either.” First of all, those benefits aren’t “free” any more than your paycheck is free. Second, why is the anger directed at bus drivers because they have negotiated health benefits, instead at people’s own employers for not providing them?

  2. Nice post.

    And hey, I’ve got a MAX FAQ: how do you think operating a MAX compares, in terms of physical and emotional stress, to operating a bus? IIRC, MAX operators get paid a bit more than bus drivers, but on the face it seems like less demanding work. Despite the higher stakes if a MAX driver were to screw something up.

  3. This was a great post.

    I can’t help but wonder what difference it makes to have a sealed-off cabin like on MAX or on bus rapid transit systems, where the driver isn’t responsible for dealing with fares and doesn’t have to deal with people as they drive. Does this lower stress and ensuing health issues?

  4. I don’t have time to respond to comments now, but I will. In the meantime, I’m curious (as I’m sure many people are) about the legality of all of this. I’ve found this so far – but I’m not sure that answers everything. If anyone else has definitive answers, please share.

  5. You saw this link from the Oregonian piece?

    It seems pretty clear-cut to me. In every other union situation I’ve reported on, your wages freeze as soon as your contract expires.

    However, the usual system is that if you end up getting a raise later, you get back pay, retroactive to the date of the freeze at the newly negotiated wage.

    I don’t know if this also tends to apply to frozen benefits.

    Hunt claims in his letter that TriMet’s “threats” are illegal. Maybe he’s making an argument that TriMet is making threats to workers in the midst of a labor negotiation, an unfair labor practice? That would seem tenuous to this layman, anyway.

    But I’d love to know more, too.

  6. This is the comment I added to that discussion. You’ve mentioned some things (e.g. fumes) I missed. And I think TriMet’s union has found that operators die from job-induced diseases:

    Its not just driving a bus. Its:
    *driving a 40-foot long, 10.5-foot wide (including mirrors) vehicle
    *negotiating sometimes-heavy urban traffic
    *sitting in a seat for long periods of time, sometimes only having a few minutes out of the seat at a time if that
    *constantly being affected by vibrations caused by the road surface, etc
    *frequently turning and twisting the body to check the road or towards passengers
    *frequently maneuvering into and out of stops
    *dealing with people from all walks of life (some of which may not be the nicest)
    *putting up with loud boisterous passengers or ones with screaming children
    *selling fares
    *checking fares
    *providing information about all sorts of destinations and other routes
    *running the lift
    *taking care of disabled people (e.g. securing/unsecuring mobility devices)
    *possibly having to start early in the morning and then go back out in the afternoon

    Overall, you probably won’t get killed directly like you could in a war zone. But bus operators do suffer a lot of health effects. If someone wants to see the reality, ask to ride along with one for a whole shift. Lastly, I’m pretty sure you only get $25 an hour after working for a while.

  7. This is one of the best and well-cited articles I have seen on this issue.

    I can say that rail operators do have to deal with passengers like bus operators do, though there are some differences:
    – Passengers can cause far more disruption to rail service much easier as trains usually can’t pass each other when something goes wrong
    – It takes a fair bit more unruly and socially disruptive behavior from a passenger to get a rail operator to need to respond as there is a greater need to keep the train moving
    – Rail operators are far more restricted in the kinds of actions they may take with disruptive passengers as they are in much closer communication and under far more control from their supervisors and controllers (rail’s version of “dispatch” is called “control” for a reason)
    Rail operators are also under much more pressure to keep on schedule and keep moving (remember that much of this pressure, both at bus and at rail, comes from fellow operators). To offset this, there is a much stronger emphasis on safety at rail, sometimes taken to extremes that seem unreasonable to most people. This only makes worse the contradictory demands placed on operators regarding scheduling and service quality vs safety.

    As for the matter of the monetary part of the compensation TriMet operators currently get, it currently goes about like this:
    – New bus operators get $9.92/hr for their training period, which was 6 weeks when last I checked. Training is a 5 day week and 8 hour day, working out to be $396.80 gross weekly.
    – For the remainder of their first 6 months, new bus operators are paid $13.83/hr. All operators are hired as part time (known within the company as mini-run), a position that guarantees no less than 5 and no more than 6 hours scheduled in a day (25-30 hours a week). This works out to be a gross weekly $345.75-$414.90.
    – Pay scales up incrementally until your 35th month when you top out at $25.13/hr. Presumably, if it is your goal to be full time, you have made it there by this time (sometimes it’s as soon as 6 months, sometime as long as 4 years). This would guarantee a minimum of 8 hours a day, meaning 40+/week. Many get even more than that (the most I’ve seen on a schedule is about 50), and there is overtime paid for everything over 8 hours in a day and everything after 40 hours in a week. This works out to $1005.20 minimum, 1482.67 for an evenly distributed 50 hour week. These numbers adjust with inflation, though I’d be willing to bet that the calculations used to estimate the inflation rate are extremely conservative.
    – After 15 years of service, operators begin receiving “longevity pay”, starting at an extra $.30/hr and increasing every five years to eventually reach $2.30/hr. This is not adjusted with inflation.

  8. I am bus driver and have been doing it for about 9 years. I love my work because I provide a vital service to our community and I get to positively touch lives. I’m so frustrated by people who say we don’t deserve our pay and benefits and that we are not really “working”. I have been a police officer and a special education teacher and I work harder in this job than I did in those jobs. I have been threatened, spit on, verbally abused at length and been propositioned for sex more times than I can count. I know that office/”indoor” jobs (which I’ve worked) are not exposed to tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol abuser, the drug dealers, armed passengers plus a host of common illnesses. We are vulnerable in that help is not available immediately. By the time help comes, minutes have passed and we have already been injured or killed. We are also expected to stop a threat to another human being (i.e. one passenger threatening another). I gladly do this because I would rather have harm come to me than one of my passengers. My responsibiltity is to ensure my passengers safely arrive at their destination, irregardless of whether they have paid for that ride, whether they have yelled or screamed at me, whether they hate me because I make a decent wage and have health benefits. You’re right – no one’s forcing me to work here and do the job that I do. I can do other things. But I love what I do. Not many people can say that. Unfortunately, I have to defend why I’m in the driver’s seat because people say I have it “so good” and I don’t have a “real job”.

    • Yeah, I see a lot of the same things in news comments (Oregonian, KATU, etc) every time this comes up – “Driving’s not such a big deal, most 16 year olds can do it!” But they just don’t see that there’s a huge difference between driving just for your commute to work or school to work in a non-safety sensitive job, and needing to be “on” all the time as a transit operator BECAUSE safety is so critical. And then yes, adding in the frontline public work aspect of it on top of that – sure grocery store clerks or Starbucks baristas can get hostile and unpleasant customers, but it’s still not quite the same as being trapped in a moving box with them that YOU have to keep safe.
      Thanks for your comment.

  9. I may be late in commenting on a 2-year-old article, but I have this to say. A lot of people express frustration when hearing about the benefits operators get because so few people in this country have access to even basic health care. I think it’s more irrational lashing-out in frustration than anything.

    I work in what some may consider an “easy” job, but I still have to deal with the public. I have not had access to any sort of health insurance in over 2 years. If I suffered some sort of medical emergency tomorrow, I have no means to pay those costs. My only option would be to go to an ER in a life-or-death situation, amass a huge bill I would have no hope of being able to pay, and letting it go into collections. I can’t even call out sick because I could not bear the lost wages or the risk of reprimand/termination.

    More Americans are in this position than not. We can’t easily “rally up” against our employers because they would just fire us and hire one of the hundreds of unemployed people out on the street desperate for a job.

    I don’t begrudge the benefits or compensation of our friendly operators nor do I think they should be reduced. I do see an ever-growing trend of frustration in our country because something that should be a basic human right such as health care has turned into a commodity that only the wealthy or those lucky enough to have benefits can even dream of having.

  10. Pingback: Bridgeplate who? | TriMet Underground

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