Tag Archives: bus drivers


!!!  PRIORITY ONE  !!!



Oh wait, they already know.

This really isn’t as much of a shocking new paradigm as the Oregonian would like it to be. Any moderately bright middle schooler could do the math for you. Remember grade school math word problems? “If a bus driver at the top of the pay scale makes $25.13 per hour for the first 8 hours, and then 1.5x that an hour for every hour after the first 8, and they work 9 hours a day, or 10, or more, how much money do they make?” The pay scales have been posted on TriMet’s website for a long time now – this isn’t news, nor is the concept of overtime.

The operators who are making well above the average are the ones willing to take every minute of overtime offered, working every holiday, working more than 8hrs/day, and working as many days off as allowed (operators can’t work more than 13 days in a row). And operators aren’t the ones who write the runs – if there are runs that pay 10, 11 hours a day, ultimately someone is going to sign them (usually the highest seniority people, but not always). Why should the operators who sign runs written with a lot of overtime have to apologize for it?

Why is there so much overtime available anyway?

Well, it’s kind of funny.  See, we’ve had this hiring freeze due to budget problems…

PORTLAND — TriMet officials said declining payroll tax revenues and pressure to crunch the budget will likely cause yet another round of route reductions and another increase in fares as well.

TriMet officials said they need to cut the budget for the next fiscal year by $27 million. Proposed changes include a 5-percent administrative cut, a salary and hiring freeze, reductions to bus and MAX service and a five-cent fare increase.

I forget exactly when the hiring freeze started – I would have guessed in 2009, but I did some searching and found this KGW news article on the hiring freeze dated February 10th of this year. Okay, let’s start with that date. Now here’s why this is funny – these are the job openings that have been posted at TriMet since February 10, 2010 (and the associated salary range for each, not including benefits):

  • Manager, Benefits; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Senior Accountant – Treasury & Cash Management; $51,652.00 – $77,479.00
  • General Manager (heh); $215,000
  • Field Outreach & Community Relations Representative; $12.56-$17.58/hr
  • Deputy General Counsel – Real Estate; $93,360.00 – $140,038.00
  • Real Property Specialist; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Executive Director Capital Projects (after Neil transferred to General Manager); actually I don’t know what this compensation range is, but according to that list of salaries, Neil made $184,690.92 so we’ll go with that.
  • Contracts Administrator III; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Director Transportation Operations; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Systems Engineer II-Network; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Service Worker; $15.78 – $21.04/hr
  • Director Safety & Security; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Administrator, MTP Contracts; $22.75 – $34.12/hr
  • Manager, Facilities Systems; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Receptionist; $12.56 – $17.58/hr
  • Legal Assistant; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Coordinator, Operations Services; $20.83 – $31.24/hr
  • Facilities Specialist; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Maintenance Supervisor; $27.09 – $40.63/hr
  • Accounting Manager; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00

Heckuva hiring freeze there…

Not counting the hourly jobs (because I don’t feel like doing the math) or the Executive Director of Capital projects (because I don’t have the range), that’s a total range from $935,768 on the low end to $1,331,514 on the high end of salaries of jobs posted at TriMet during this supposed “hiring freeze”.

You know what’s missing from that list? Bus operators. I don’t remember offhand the last time minirunners (part time bus operators) were hired, but I’d guess it was around the end of 2008. We have the money for all those other jobs, but no money to hire bus operators – in fact, bus operators were asked to take voluntary unpaid leaves of absence!

But buses still have to go out even when we’re short on operators – spend about 5 minutes on Twitter when a bus doesn’t show up to see how much people love it when their bus is a no-show. If we’re not hiring more operators to fill out the ranks, the only alternative is to have operators work overtime to keep things moving. Many operators are willing to take on overtime because hey, if you can do the work, it needs to get done, and you can make time and a half on it? Why wouldn’t you take it? So a lot of operators do. I don’t see why people have a problem with this – if operators didn’t pick up RDO work or if none were willing to work overtime, there would be a lot more buses & trains canceled due to no operator available to take them out. It’s mutually beneficial to the operators who want the overtime and the transit-dependent who want their buses to show up.

Here’s a thought for you – if there were enough operators to cover all the work, there wouldn’t be so much overtime available.

It’d be a lot cheaper if TriMet would hire minirunners again. They start at the bottom of the pay scale – a whopping $13.83/hr. Sure, operators who have been picking up the overtime would lose a lot of that and there’d probably be some grumbling about it, but overtime (though nice) is not guaranteed. Paying a newcomer $13.83/hr for their shift versus paying $37.70/hr (time and a half for the top rate of bus operator pay) would be a lot cheaper for TriMet to do, and you’d see fewer operators making these apparently oh-so-extravagant salaries. Actually I’d kind of enjoy it if TriMet posted openings for minirunners again – to all of the people whining about the work bus operators do and what they get paid for it: that would be your chance to either turn in your application to be a bus driver yourself or forever hold your peace.

Edited to add: Been talking about this with someone else, who said that there could be a budgetary reason why TriMet feels it makes more sense to pay lots of overtime than it would be to hire new minirunners.  Maybe that’s true – neither of us are TriMet financial planners with particular inside knowledge into that.

But I think it would be kind of nice if there was an official TriMet response to this media frenzy over operators who work a lot of overtime and make the money that they do because of it. TriMet doesn’t seem to mind paying it, so they should stand up for the operators that take on that work.

Bus and rail comparisons

In the comments of my last post, both Michael of Portland Afoot and Nick asked similar questions, which I thought would best be addressed in their own post because my responses to their comments were getting pretty long.

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?


[H]ow do you think operating a MAX compares, in terms of physical and emotional stress, to operating a bus?

Physically speaking, I’d say bus is worse. I do know rail operators who ended up going back to bus for health-related reasons caused by operating the trains, but I probably know more rail operators who’d be happy to go back to bus but they can’t physically handle it. There’s a lot more turning, twisting, bending, etc at bus than at rail typically, unless you get into things like train troubleshooting – manually retracting a bridegplate, cutting out a door, pumping off a brake that’s hanging, etc (which is relatively rare compared to the physical movements done at bus). Most of the rail health problems I’ve seen are back problems – which most transit operators have – and left arm problems (hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, etc) from using the motoring drum handle, or MDH.

Type 2 MDH – no gas or brake pedals in the trains, everything is done with this

Emotionally? It’s hard to say. Some people are mentally/emotionally more suited to one job than the other. If you’re a people-person and need interpersonal interaction in your job, rail is not the job for you – sure there’s still communicating over the radio and talking with other operators at the ends of the line, but it’s not the same as the constant interaction with bus passengers. On the flip side, if you’re more introverted, you might find that operating a train is less stressful than a bus because for the most part passenger interaction at rail is a choice – some operators will talk to passengers on the platforms through their window, for example, but many have very little interaction with the people on their train or on platforms. I have very little experience with bus rapid transit, so I don’t know how the stress of that compares with bus at TriMet, but bus operators needing to deal with driving the bus, announcing their stops, and handling passenger fares and questions is like “driving a truck while operating a checkout stand at Safeway” – that aspect is easier at rail where (generally speaking) the automated stop announcements work properly and you don’t need to field nearly as many questions as a bus operator does. And if someone boards a train without having valid fare, it’s not really your problem.

The differences in passenger interaction at bus and rail is mentioned in this old TriMet TV video interviewing operator Donna Popi (which gives a nice snapshot of what rail operators do):

Aside from the interpersonal interactions as a mental/emotional stressor, there are other differences in stress at rail and stress at bus. One of the most obvious ones is the risk of accidents. At bus, if someone runs out in front of you, you can hit the brakes, but more importantly, you can swerve. When someone runs out in front of you at rail, you can hit the mushroom (emergency brake) and the high horn and hope/pray that you stop in time or that the person gets out of the way, but there’s no swerving to evade a collision.

There’s also the difference of essentially being the captain of your own ship at bus, and being one of many vehicles sharing a fixed guideway at rail. I know there are a lot of operators who prefer that flexibility at bus – it’s easier to wait if you see someone running for your bus if they’re a little bit late, you’re not required to report in every little thing you do to dispatch, if you make a mistake and turn on the wrong street, you can get yourself back on route without causing any problems, or if your bus breaks down it’s unfortunate for your passengers but your follower can get around you and keep things moving even if there’s a delay in service, etc. So in that aspect, bus is pretty low-stress.

The four-car Type 4, after a broken down Type 4 tied up the alignment for more than 4 hours this past June

At rail, since you’re one part of many in a string of moving parts, if you stop moving unexpectedly it can affect all those parts behind you. If you break down, your followers physically can’t get around you, unless it happens to be in a place like BTC or Gateway or Rose Quarter, for example, where the setup of the switches and other tracks gives you some flexibility to get trains around you. If you need to leave your cab for any reason, you’re supposed to radio it in to Control – again, so that they and the trains behind you know that you’re not moving when you’re supposed to be. And it’s a lot easier to violate rules at rail than bus – from having the wrong route code in the train (essentially the equivalent of making a wrong turn) to getting an ATS trip from speeding or “running a red light”.

I’m not sure one job is more stressful than the other – they’re both high stress and have some overlap and some differences in what the major sources of stress are. I think a lot of it also depends on your own individual personality which one might suit you better.

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.