Operator death

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?

2 responses to “Operator death

  1. Bravo, good sir, bravo.

    I’m going to make a confession. I’ve heard a lot about the union struggle and such but have never really been attached to it, fired up by it. This really opened my eyes to exactly why health benefits are important, and it’s just so… I dunno, just so duh!

    This was brilliantly written and I wish I had thought of this idea before. The TriMet board needs to hear this. You being the mysterious transit blogging caped crusader over the city who never gives his identity, I know you aren’t about to go say it yourself. But this needs to be heard by everyone. I’m even going so far as to actually post a link to another blog post on my blog, something I’ve never bothered to do.

    Keep on blogging, and for that matter, blogging brilliantly.

    Cameron Johnson.

    • Hey Cameron, thanks for your comment.

      I think a lot of people outside of the union don’t understand why this health care issue is so important because they don’t see the detrimental health effects of the job firsthand. The local media will happily report how “generous” the benefits are, but you never see stories about the long-term health problems associated with being a transit operator or reports of operators passing away from a heart attack or other job-related cause. And I know (because it’s happened before) that some dissenter will show up and say “well no one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to drive a bus/train” but that’s not the point. We’ve got a really nice public transit system here, and someone’s got to operate it. It is a good investment to help provide for the health of the operators, but even more than that it just seems like the humanitarian thing to do.

      Believe me, I get it that health costs are rising for everyone and it’s a national problem. But I don’t know, if the TriMet powers that be are willing to seek out funding for building more alignment, I guess I don’t see why they aren’t equally willing to seek out funding to protect the front line workers. I saw the video of your speech from the last board meeting and you’re right – it seems incongruous for TriMet to say that service has to be cut (as well as health benefits) because there’s no money, yet there was no problem in securing money for Milwaukie rail. If we were broke across the board and EVERYTHING was cut, that’d be one thing, but this “broke about some things but not others” just doesn’t sit well.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and thanks for speaking up like you do.

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