I took this picture at Ruby earlier this year after attending a memorial service for a rail operator who passed away in February. A few months after that, another rail operator became ill and died. In October, a third operator died, and yesterday was the fourth rail operator death this year. All of their deaths were from health problems; none of them were in a car accident or anything like that, and all were relatively young – early to mid 50s or so.
And I don’t know what to say or think. These were people who you greeted as you relieved their train or they relieved yours, joked around with in the break rooms, waved to as you passed their train and now they’re dead. I guess this is why I feel as strongly as I do about operator health benefits. This job has higher rates of death and injury than most jobs, and that’s not an abstract concept when it’s someone you know (or several people you know) who dies. I mean, did four of your coworkers die this past year? How are you supposed to react to that? That’s not even getting into the number of rail operators who have been in the hospital, needed surgery, or lost a lot of time at work recovering from work-related injury OR the number of bus operator deaths and injuries this year, and every year.
So it should be understandable why the union has historically rejected pay raises in favor of compensating operators through health benefits, and why the union is so protective of those benefits – they’re needed! But there is zero coverage of bus/rail operator work-related illness, injury and death in the media, so all the public gets fed is this false image of operators kicking back and living the high life on a sweet benefits package.
Meanwhile, my understanding is that the TriMet board unanimously and easily passed $947 million to fund Milwaukie light rail while refusing to put a hold on changes to union employee health insurance until it could be negotiated. So again it seems disingenuous that there’s supposedly no money to continue to care for the men and women out there running the trains and buses, but we can pass close to a billion dollars to build a rail line without a blink. Yes I get it that that money was requested for a specific project and can only be dedicated to that project, but is it so unreasonable to think that TriMet should show equal dedication toward investing in the front line employees making it work?