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Deacon Who?

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(Note: Ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily shared by the transit agency I work for. This is simply an expression of free speech while describing the work bus operators perform.) I have been (and called) many things in this life. Most of all, I'm a writer who happens to drive a bus. In May of '13 I thought it would be fun to write about my job. As a direct result of this blog, I published a book in November of 2017 called "JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane" that is available on Amazon. I write to provide insight as to what it's like on a bus... From The Driver Side. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Dear General Manager: LISTEN to US

Photo courtesy of Aidan Austin, transit enthusiast.

Deke's Note: Instead of replying to His Majesty, I decided to do so here. My last email to our GM asked if his decision to allow DOUBLE the passenger load, even as our service area remains closed to business due to continued elevated numbers of COVID-19 cases, was tantamount to killing us all. Since he hasn't replied, I decided to elevate the conversation to my worldwide audience. I hope this post strikes a chord within you, enough that you respond with comments detailing your own feelings to our collective managements' disassociation with transit worker reality.

Doug,

I apologize. My last email to you was written after four 10-hour days on Line 9, where at least 40% of all passengers do not pay fare. My job has me infinitely more-stressed than usual, prompting me to ask if you want to kill us all by allowing 19-24 passengers next week instead of a more-sane half that for the past several weeks.

I have diligently pressed "Fare Evasion" each time some slacker slithers onto my ride, in hopes you send Fare Inspectors back to their duties ensuring our passengers pony up the mere $2.50 for the privilege of enjoying my years of training and professionalism.

My job has entailed more than the usual stress during this pandemic. People are on edge. They think it’s suitable to take out their frustrations on transit workers. The public’s pandemic frustration is taking its toll… on US. Some operators have been spit upon by those who claim to be infected by this deadly virus which has virtually stopped all commerce on the planet. They harass, intimidate, and threaten us as we do the vital job of transporting them wherever they choose to go.

Constantly at risk, knowing face masks will not protect me if this lethal bug makes its way into my body, involves an enormous leap of faith every time I take the wheel of a bus. I did not sign up for this job to die. Instead, I did so because I enjoy serving people, love to drive, and feel transit operators are the cogs of any city's economic wheel. It’s a prideworthy endeavor, and I put my every ounce of effort and skill into every moment I’m in uniform.

It has become a ridiculous constant where someone will board, looking disheveled and poor, yet pull a wad of cash out as if they're about to purchase fare. Then, they feign ignorance.

"You don't take cash?" they'll ask. They think I'm easily conned, as if I'm not aware they rode transit to where they're now catching a ride back from where they originated. Cash certainly wasn’t accepted on the bus a few hours prior, and nothing has changed since their originating, non-essential ride.

I sigh, having heard this several times a day for the past six weeks. "We haven't taken cash for two months now. Cash is dirty, possibly contaminated. Please buy a HOP Pass. You can purchase them at...  (any number of retail outlets)."

At this, they usually glance at the bills in their hand and hastily shove it back into their pocket. Then, they shrug and walk past me to find a seat.

This behavior is not only disrespectful to transit, but to me. I work very hard to provide a very smooth, safe ride. When someone cons me, I consider it insulting.

Now, with Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties still shut down, you sent an email outlining your plan to allow DOUBLE the number of passengers on our buses. Not only is this premature, but it's disingenuous. I feel cheated, that my sacrifice of serving on the front line of transit is of no value to you. Am I simply expendable, like the nearly 200 New York transit workers who have lost their lives to COVID-19?

Early in your tenure as General Manager, a co-worker and brother of mine asked you about Thomas Dunn. You had no idea who he was. “I’m from Candada, you know,” was his reply. I was stunned to hear this. Eh? This story about your lack of knowledge of the transit world was truly disheartening to us all. When one of us is murdered, we ALL suffer the grief, no matter where it happens. You think like a CEO, rather than the leader of 2,000+ blue collar workers one paycheck from Tent City. This is exactly why ATU 757 was heartily against you being hired as our GM. You have no idea what it’s like to do the nuts-and-bolts jobs of transit.

When there's a snowstorm, those who make the city work show up. We do our jobs under the worst possible conditions, admirably as always. Sure, there are the expected sound bites from you as to how you "appreciate" our efforts. These are quickly forgotten as your subordinates bash us a few weeks later during contract negotiations. Always taking away, diminishing our invaluable contributions while feigning to "appreciate" our contribution to Portland's vibrant economy. 

Corporate America has no place in transit. Your management team, like your predecessor's, seems more intent on disciplining us for the silliest or false accusations, rather than holding us up to the public for the valued employees we are. Your Mission One should be supporting those who make your job possible: those who get the job done on the streets of Portland. Instead, it seems management's Number One Directive is The Next Great MAX Line Nobody But Government Cares About. You should be concentrating funds toward improving facilities for frontline employees, bolstering our benefits to ensure a secure retirement for us, and working with the cities we serve to improve the conditions under which we operate. Just give us a place to pee, then eat, in peace for the few minutes your punishing schedules allow. Is that too much to ask? Evidently.

We do not have a Golden Nest Egg awaiting US, even though our efforts ensure little more than a broken body and spirit after 10 (usually more) years of dedication to our profession. Each contract negotiation has shown management's callous disregard for our continued well-being. One day a year, under the guise of Transit Worker Appreciation Day, in which over half the workforce is ignored as you retreat after a 9-5 workday, does nothing to make us feel "appreciated". A few apples or bananas tossed our way does little to assuage the pain you meter out every other day of each year.

Photo courtesy of Dean Turner, passenger.
Oregon has successfully (so far) beaten the national infectious curve of this pandemic through strict measures. To loosen these restrictions now, while our service area struggles to reach the Governor's mandates through which we can re-open commerce, is truly foolhardy. It is also putting frontline workers at even higher risk for catching the virus, which kills more than it spares. I urge you to remain steadfast with the 10-15 passenger limit until such time that the current caseload dissipates and the curve has trended downward. Until our service area is ready to re-open, it is vital that your mandates reflect OUR safety, as well as that of the general public. To allow double the passenger load at this point is a dangerous choice.

At this point, operators across the world are banding together to send videos of support to transit workers in New York City, which has lost 118 union employees to the virus. More will be sent to London, where 42 have died from the virus. 

Yes, I realize you have taken drastic measures to provide for the safety of our frontline employees. Thank you for procuring masks, wipes, gloves and disinfectant. Thank you for reducing service and limiting the amount of passengers on our vehicles. I appreciate your keeping us apprised of actions taken with everyone's safety in mind. However, I keep asking why transit agencies worldwide, and governments as well, were not prepared to begin with? 

Transit has become more reactive than proactive. Your model seems to be modeled upon some utopian dream than reality. I'm truly afraid of when The Big Earthquake hits Portland, because we never hear about your plans for when it might happen. However, geologists predict the next one could be over 9.0 on the Richter Scale, and that would devastate our metropolitan area. When it happens, will your staff once again be reactive, or is there some plan in place? How many of us will die, be left stranded for lack of preparedness, or even injured without hope of rescue for hours while your team scrambles to find a plan?

You have done some things very well, and I commend you for that. However, your lack of preparation mirrors that of an entire world community that was caught off-guard. I lost 31 hours of pay when I voluntarily self-quarantined early on. Today, after working nearly six weeks after that, I could be infected yet asymptomatic, yet there have been no plans to test frontline workers. We cannot work from home, so we are constantly at-risk. Your kind words of "support" do little to quell our fears of contamination. 

Each frontline worker should be monitored daily for any signs of the disease. Our temperature should be recorded before reporting for duty, and after our shifts end. Buses and light rail vehicles should be cleaned at the end of the line, each time. HVAC filters should be replaced daily. Masks should be worn for an hour (at most), then replaced. Passengers should be required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer or be refused service. More than one route for those who depend on bottle and can redemption for a living should be instituted. 

The cities in our service area should provide more hand-washing stations. Perhaps each major transit station should have them as well. There are many other proactive solutions that could be made available with the ultimate goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19, but I don't see much thought being put into proactiveness. We're still reacting, and that keeps us all at risk.

Humanity has survived thousands of threats during our short rule on Earth. That's because our brains are more highly-evolved than any other species. Or, are they? Perhaps we're just lucky. I don't know. What I do know is that we have become complacent, arrogant and unresponsive to the dangers we face. Only the bold survive. Only the intelligent can work proactively to ensure our survival. 

Portland has a history of being a progressive model. Our transit agency was once the best in the world. Now, it languishes somewhere in the middle. Why? Because we lost focus somewhere along the way. Specifically, about a decade ago when corporatists took control. Your kind tends to think of models; the working class thinks in terms of survival. Put a former bus operator in your job, and I guarantee the focus upon employee morale would once again elevate us to the No. 1 position. We have a plethora of experience which could be mined for excellence rather than corporate "successes". Blue collar workers here are not impressed with our management's heavy-handed treatment of us. When the color of our shoes matters more than comfort and support, then we have a conflict in priorities.

Several times, I've had to pass up essential workers, fare in hand, because I have a bus full of fare evaders just riding to ride. I'm told not to judge, but that's impossible. Given the prospect of serving a regular who has worked through this pandemic just like I have, or some derelict fare evader who just wants a warm and dry place to sleep off their high, I'll take the fare-paying public every time. Either way, I concentrate on providing my passengers with a patented smooth ride every time. It doesn't matter that nearly every point of my body sitting in yet another poorly-designed operator's seat aches with grimly-borne pains which yearn to be soothed by my expensive bed I just finished paying for. My feet scream with yet another press of the brake pedal, some 4,000 times each week, but each service stop is approached with a smoothness honed over 7.5 years of diligent practice. These hips groan as I use them to mitigate the pressures put on knees and calves as I caress that brake pedal. My mind constantly finds ways to work with difficult passengers while jovially engaging the overwhelming majority of decent people I serve.

At least once each shift, my soul has to find creative ways of dealing with those who think their 20-minute daily ride trumps my years of experience. They berate me for "missing a stop" called for just as my bus is rolling past it. My soul also works overtime worrying whether this passenger will call in a complaint in which they lie about everything which happened, prompting some over-zealous manager to berate (even suspend) me for adhering to transit protocol which has existed long before any of us were born. Many have told me of complaints lodged against them, only to see "tape" of the event which clearly exonerates them, only to be told it will not be erased from their record. Why? Because. And that is more than wrong; it's horribly, crudely insulting.

Your job may not be easy, but I could do it. So could any of those who drive a bus, operate a MAX train, maintain any vehicle, stand for hours at a Station Agent desk, supervise those on the road or enforce fare. Yet, we're expendable and you seem above the fray. Do not take us for granted, or believe your scripted platitudes of "appreciation" fool us. Our pains, fears of assaults (which rise each year), and attacks upon our professionalism any time a pedestrian or motorist fail to take the most basic precautions in our presence, have built up within us a hardened and forceful belief that we are not truly "appreciated" for our sacrifices.

"We are public servants, sacrificing daily for the common good." Tom Horton, my beloved brother and fellow bus operator, coined it perfectly. Can you claim the same? Not even close, sir. Try harder.

Thanks again to Dean Turner, regular fare-paying
passenger/photographer.
I'll continue doing my job the only way I know: safely, smoothly and with a smile. There's no bullshit in what I do. It's all there in the 175,000 miles of safe driving. Tangible results. More commendations than complaints. And that, my friends, is something I can bank on.

With humility and sorrow, I am
Deke N. Blue
Bus Operator

12 comments:

  1. Excellent article. I retired in January after 21 years of driving for MetroTransit in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. The virus had already been making its way to the U. S. but none of us knew it. I feel very fortunate to have gotten out when I did. I’m 66 and have acquired permanent disabilities from driving (back, knees, hip and shoulder) and just couldn’t do it anymore. Your article describes the life of a bus driver perfectly. It could have been written by any one of us here at MetroTransit.
    I am concerned for all my fellow drivers who are still out there. No one seems to be thinking about them in all this. On TV, you see signs, kudos and applause for medical staff, police, firefighters, EMTs, grocery store clerks, and every other essential employee but never a mention of the bus drivers. Management needs to step up and do everything they can to protect the drivers. Like you said, no one takes this job to lose their life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This article hits every nail on the head to a "T".....
      I too work for Metro Transit with 21 yrs in. I'm usually telling people...no one gets out of this world alive....however...you're right...none of us signed on for this job thinking....."hey...I can't wait to catch this virus and have it kill me"

      Delete
  2. Great scribe my friend. I lasted only 5 1/2 years
    as an operator before I resigned. Keep up the
    good work and dedication in providing a smooth
    and safe ride for your passengers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 5.5 years is more than some have endured, thanks for your service!

      Delete
  3. I'm one of your coworkers and I'm anonymous because I fear retaliation from our management. I read almost everything that you've blogged about and you are always spot on. This piece was no different. Brilliantly written. I think most of us feel same way. We feel that they truly don't care about us. Hiring almost 30 trainers to keep up endless hiring has proven that. There once was an HR rep that got let go because she said they could train a monkey to drive a bus and that they were looking a for folks with customer service. Told me all I needed to know about this agency. Although I am thankful for this job, I no longer love the agency that employs me. Why should I?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading and speaking up. We're all ashamed at what has become of what was once the premier transit agency in our country. Corporate interests have decimated what was once a great job. Do not be afraid of speaking up for your brothers and sisters. If we allow Corporata to continue its takeover of transit, then we deserve what we are tortured with. WE are more valuable than monkeys.

      Delete
  4. A couple of things, wholly crap! The Transit Mall is a ghost town! 2nd, VTA has started testing for its frontline employees, but it's not mandatory and 3rd, a friend of mine who drives for COTA in Columbus, Ohio says she has her temperature taken before starting work. So, other agencies are doing things. I have the digital paperwork, if you want to see it, for VTA.

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    Replies
    1. Howdy Shawn! Always interested in verifiable facts, especially where it concerns frontline workers who are virtually ignored throughout this devastating pandemic. Hope you and yours are safe and healthy, brother.

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  5. I am a caregiver for the mentally disable everyday mon-friday.you are so very right with people that ride for free. And starting next week more people on transit now that scares alot more. They need to keep to small amount of people until reopening.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My brother was born with Down Syndrome, and he is so confused as to why he cannot leave his home. He is depressed, confused and in constant need of our family's support. Dan will turn 57 next week, and I'm 1,500 miles distant. I would so love to give him a hug, but he cannot even venture outside his home right now, let alone entertain a hug from his three brothers, numerous nephews, his niece, his great-nephew and even his girlfriend. Thanks for bringing to light the horrors visited upon the most-vulnerable in society, and for working to ease their sorrows.

      Delete
  6. As always, well said and written!! And a perfect summary of how Corporate views the workers in general.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete

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Deke's Note: After the fright, stress and flashbacks of the violent incident on my bus just over a week ago, I have ached to reach back ...