For some Orange County bus drivers, stopping to use the restroom with passengers aboard can be a calculated risk, given the potential for rider complaints and traffic delays, which can already chip away at the limited rest time allowed by their employer, the region’s public transit agency.
Embarrassing and even unhealthy scenarios such as bladder infections from holding urine, urinating right outside the bus, wearing padded underwear, or even wetting one’s self can become “part of the job” as a driver for the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), said union leaders and a former driver in interviews with Voice of OC this week.
“We had stories of ‘I wet myself,’ some of them wear padded underwear, we heard about bladder infections …” said Eric Jimenez, Secretary-Treasurer for Teamsters Local 952, the union representing roughly 600 bus drivers directly employed by OCTA.
Union leaders also provided to Voice of OC copies of written reports by drivers addressed to OCTA management requesting changes to their schedules and time allowances – and detailing instances in which they were not able to stop and use the restroom. The drivers’ names were redacted.
“… I did pause the time, parked the bus in not an ideal location to use a restroom, then I resumed the time as I continued to layover […] I did not eat my food …”Excerpt from a bus driver’s report to OCTA, shared with and reviewed by Voice of OC
Some drivers “actually urinate outside the bus. This is just part of the job,” said Charles Johnson, who used to drive for OCTA for part of his 32-year career across different transit authorities.
“You don’t have enough time. When you get to the end of the line, you just don’t,” Johnson said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“And lord knows you don’t really think about eating unless you eat while you’re using the restroom, which many of us have done. It’s no secret,” Johnson added. “This is real. This is real. I’m not exaggerating the story, either. I’m being as honest with you as possible.”
Johnson now works for Teamsters Local 952, a union that represents roughly 600 bus drivers directly employed by OCTA.
“I (worked) for at least five different transportation agencies,” Johnson said, adding that the $1.3 billion agency in Orange County “is the most restrictive agency I’ve ever been a part of.”
Voice of OC has not yet been able to verify that claim with other agencies.
An OCTA spokesperson disputes what the Teamsters allege on best practices.
“Our process for breaks is the same as public transit agencies throughout California,” wrote OCTA Communications Manager Joel Zlotnik in a statement sent to Voice of OC.
Teamsters and OCTA are now in the midst of a labor dispute, one where negotiations on working conditions and wages have stalled following bargaining sessions that stretched from last Friday to Monday.
“… I got there about 17 mins past the trip start time, used the restroom, and left 22 mins late. On Friday, I tried a different routing […] and I still started the 64 seven mins late and did not use the restroom […] Im sad that I will have to work in these working conditions for the next 4 months.”Excerpt from a bus driver’s report to OCTA, shared with and reviewed by Voice of OC
In response to Voice of OC questions over the phone about the union’s claims, Zlotnik provided a written statement Wednesday admitting there have been issues with restroom breaks in general, without giving specifics, while calling such problems “rare.”
“We have heard of rare instances where there have been issues related to restroom breaks,” reads Zlotnik’s statement. “If a coach operator needs to, they can safely pull the bus over at any point and use the restroom and will not be penalized because of it.”
Union leaders say bus drivers can indeed push a button signaling they intend to stop for the restroom when they need to, but this can chip away at their time schedule — possibly making them late to their stops — and bring about complaints from frustrated riders.
Jimenez said drivers in those situations tend to have “passengers breathing down their neck.”
“If one of those passengers happens to call OCTA and say ‘I was late and didn’t make my bus transfer’ and made a good case for OCTA to look into it, that’s a way for OCTA to come down on the driver — it almost deters our employees from going to the restroom,” he added.
Zlotnik, of OCTA, said the agency’s current policies take into account employees’ well-being.
“We care greatly about our coach operators and our actions are always guided by what’s best for their health and safety,” he said.
Union leaders say much of the problem ties back to OCTA’s mechanism for giving drivers rest periods, in what’s known as “Recovery Time.”
Recovery time, at OCTA, serves as padding of sorts – usually, a 15-minute grace period incorporated into a driver’s route to account for traffic delays or service disruptions and help the coach operator get back on schedule.
Or – if the driver made good timing on the route and has some recovery time left – the driver can on paper use that time to take a break before starting their next route.
“Meals and break periods are not in drivers’ contract. There is no provision, language, article or section in the contract that spells out breaks or meal periods. It spells out recovery time,” said Jimenez, of Teamsters, in a Tuesday phone interview.
The driver union’s contract with OCTA reads: “The Authority will provide an average recovery time of at least fifteen percent (15%) of all regular work runs, computed on a Base-wide basis.”
“… I use the restroom en route in the Long Beach area as Belgrave and Valley View does not have a restroom. Then I arrive at the layover in Long Beach, and start the trip a few minutes late […] I feel that more time should be provided than what is currently given to […] use the restroom-and perhaps an opportunity to eat some of my food, and start the […] trip without feeling extremely rushed.”Excerpt from a bus driver’s report to OCTA, shared with and reviewed by Voice of OC
“Say a driver takes a bus out and they’re given 20 minutes recovery time today,” Jimenez said. “Well, say the driver pulls up to stop and there’s a wheelchair which requires a ramp — now it takes 5 minutes to put the ramp down. So now I’m down by 5 minutes.”
Delays can domino to a point where drivers find themselves with no recovery time at all before their route ends – meaning they’re then late to all their remaining stops, Jimenez said.
He added that “several of our bus drivers have said there are times they go days without a break, days without a lunch” due to the pressure.
“We’re not saying that stuff happens all the time, but what we’re trying to point out is the potential of drivers’ recovery time going down with the daily things you face as a driver,” Jimenez said. “If you do not get that recovery time, then you don’t get a lunch.”
There are things that drivers can do in such cases – the main measure is to file a report and seek compensation or a schedule adjustment. Though Johnson and Jimenez say the process for that can be so long-drawn it discourages drivers from pursuing corrective action.
The bus drivers’ reports shared by the union do include response notes from OCTA staff managing the reporting system saying that they have made adjustments to some routes.
Routes and schedules are “continuously monitored and will be adjusted as needed if there are issues. We have offered additional guaranteed break time,” Zlotnik said.
What the union is arguing across the table is “that you need to give this human being a time to go to the restroom, time to take a bite of a sandwich, time to pop medication for health issues,” Jimenez said.
In a prior story, Zlotnik told Voice of OC that OCTA has offered an additional, guaranteed rest period for drivers to settle the labor talks.
On Wednesday, Zlotnik limited comment from the agency.
“These are important and complex issues and a back-and-forth discussion outside of the negotiating room doesn’t get us any closer to reaching a resolution. We are happy to discuss any issues with the union back at the bargaining table,” Zlotnik wrote Wednesday.
Teamsters officials who are sitting across the table from OCTA executives continue to remain vocal, saying silence on workforce issues doesn’t allow for much accountability for taxpayers.
As much as OCTA officials “want to say they are taking care of this problem — that is farthest from the truth,” Jimenez said.
In an additional written statement sent Wednesday afternoon, Jimenez called drivers’ situation an issue of “human dignity.”
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