Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bouncy Boppin' Board

My bus drivin' buddy John gave me some good-natured ribbing during a recent phone conversation. He tends to enjoy my posts about driving, but when it comes to politics we disagree. John's a great guy, and I love him like a brother. But one thing I learned during the last election cycle was that nowadays, friends can be quickly lost in the fiery arena of politics. I'm not always right, he's not always wrong. We agree on many things in the middle, but on other points we are at odds.

Our union recently ratified a new contract, so I waxed political. This blog wasn't originally meant to cover politics, but sometimes it just slips out, like an elevator fart. So let's just say I've taken John's hint, and a bit of literary antacid as well. Back to business at hand...


Driving the extra board lately, I feel like a yo-yo. Mornings, then nights, back to mornings again. In the span of four days. It's rough on Ol' Codger Deacon, to spin my circadian rhythm in drunken circles. Our bodies work best on an orderly schedule. Humans want to sleep when the sun don't shine. Just when you've achieved a rhythm on the board, your seniority and position sway-drop-roll like Dolly Parton's bosom on a roller coaster. You have to adapt, or find someone willing to trade your work. Sometimes, people don't want your work, so you're stuck with it. Lately they're hiring so many "newbies" who go full time and end up on the board, it's always a game of chance.

I sign the board because A) I don't have enough seniority for good runs; B) Working overtime is good for a healthy bank account; and C) Constantly driving the same runs is about as exciting as the first day of a stomach virus. Lately, I haven't had enough of Part B. I've noticed that PM work seems to allow more overtime work, so I'm tempted to stay on the dark side. Only problem with that is I won't see much of my family. It would give me more time to write and sleep though. So it's a conundrum. In night mode, I have to call in for the next day's work before I even begin the current day's schedule. It's odd, and it's a tough row to hoe. I'm tough too, but my hoe is getting dull with age.

It would be nice if they had one extra board roster for AM reports, and another for PM's. The district is reactionary rather than visionary. They revised hours-of-service rules in a supposed attempt to give operators more pillow time, but it cut into the overtime extra board operators desire. This came after the scandal-hungry media "exposed" a few drivers who dared make $100k a year by working up to 20 hours a day. Some were found to be overly-tired, which is not safe. But there are hundreds of operators who are in uniform 12-14 hours and only get paid for 10 or less.We're certainly not making $100k; considering a majority of board operators are relatively new, the average salary range is more like $40k.

The glut of board ops is so heavy, there's also little opportunity to work on your regular days off. The board is no longer lucrative, and it would seem it's this way by design. Rather than trimming the amount of new hires, the district would rather pay thousands of dollars more to train new drivers than pay veterans overtime. It defies the "safety first" credo the district feeds the media, to have inexperienced operators clogging the board.

The board should be staffed by operators who have driven long enough to know more than a scant handful of runs. A new operator is often unprepared to drive a new route with usually no more than 10 minutes preparation. It makes them nervous, concentrating on turn-by-turn instructions rather than constantly scanning for possible hazards. An experienced operator, when faced with an unfamiliar run, knows how to balance scanning with reading instructions two or three turns in advance. I read route instructions while stopped, so my attention is on the road. When I first signed the extra board, I had been off probation a few months and had completed my first three-month full-time signup. Although I was still "green", I had at least some confidence in my abilities. Perhaps more importantly, I knew our union would represent me at the accident review board if something happened on the road.

A newly-trained operator is on probation for six months once they go in-service. For me, it made sense to stay part-time while in this precarious no-man's land. As a probie, the union cannot fully defend you if an incident occurs. If you get two PA's, you're fired. All those thousands of dollars the district just spent to train you are wasted if you slip up. I recently heard that of the 20 new hires put in service, about 25% of them don't pass probation. Part of the reason lies within their rush to go full-time and earn a decent living. Just a few years ago, new hires had to wait up to three to five years before they went full-time. Nowadays, they're brought up only a few months into their probation. Believe me, the jump from 30 hours a week to 40-45 is huge. The stress of driving as a newbie is hard enough, but when you add another 10-15 hours a week, the odds of making a mistake rise substantially.

Scanning the new "block system" of run selections available, my seniority left me with slim pickings. So I'm on the board again once winter signup begins. Many operators dislike this new way of signing runs. After years of earning their seniority, many have said this new system doesn't work for them. I'm resigned to working the board because what's available by the time I sign is not attractive to me. At least on the board I only have to drive the less desirable runs on occasion. As with any new system, this one needs work. Those union reps charged with making these changes are certainly aware of the problems and will work hard to improve it. If after four signup periods it still has problems, perhaps it will go back to the original system. As long as it fairly rewards those with seniority, the operators who have devoted their working lives to this job, I have hope that someday I will reap the same benefits they deserve.

We'll see what happens. For the next several months however, you never know where the Deacon's wheels will roll. See you 'out there'.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Granny! Workin' on the next few. ;)

  2. I think you're doing a great job and bring up many good points that the public doesn't realize, but I disagree with your hunger for overtime. In my view, ideally there should be as little overtime as possible and it's better to spread the wealth by providing more jobs to the community. I realize with health care being a per-employee cost, with overtime not factoring into retirement pay and with the low "graduation" rate we are far from ideal.

    How do you propose that the extra board get staffed totally with veterans if they are leaving the work for lower-seniority operators? Or do you think it should only take a short time to be eligible?

    But the district could do things to help operators on unfamiliar routes. The new CAD/AVL displays are supposed to be map capable, showing where the bus actually is. If it's true that TriMet doesn't want to pay the licensing costs for that feature, they could add details of the next turn to the display of upcoming stops. They were also considering a route learning system, I think maybe annotated videos of the routes.

    1. Thanks Jason. But I disagree with "as little overtime as possible" because that's limiting income potential. It costs more to keep hiring people and training them than to pay experienced drivers time and a half. Nor do I propose to only use veterans on the board. What I mean is there are too many "newbies" on the board still on probation. The chances of them running into problems and losing their jobs are much greater once they're thrust on the board. I think nobody should be allowed to go full-time until their six months of probation is over. It's safer for everyone that way. Do you realize that nearly 25% of the new hires lose their jobs because of PA's or oversleeps? It takes time to get accustomed to this job, and part-time work is the best way for them to do so. They should have to "pay their dues" just like the veterans have.

      As for helping operators on unfamiliar routes, I think TM is actually right in not paying for more gadgetry. The maps/turn-by-turns are sufficient, and they've worked for decades. It ain't broke, so don't fix it. We don't need to know where our bus is... we're driving it, right? If you're working a side of town you don't normally it might be helpful to know where you are on a map. But that's what Dispatch is for. There are only a handful of routes that are twisty-turny, so the videos are a bit much. Interesting ideas, but costly.

      It's a great job, but there's a lot of waste at the top. There's no reason for $15,000+/mo. pensions for executives who've never driven a bus, while retired operators fear poverty because of broken promises. Too many chiefs, Kemosabe. I firmly believe nobody in management should have their job if they haven't spent time "in the seat". Then, perhaps they'd be more understanding, empathetic and realistic.

      Peace, brother. And thanks for reading!