News recently broke that bus operators in Virginia are routinely forced to work 10 hours without a bathroom break. While this may seem the stuff of nightmares, it’s hardly unique to the transit industry.
Amalgamated Transit Union – one of the largest unions representing transit workers in the US – recently conducted a survey about bathroom access with 400 of its bus operators. The results were scandalous.
81% of operators report “holding it in” while they are on the job, and 64% of people avoid drinking and eating anything while they’re at work. 25% of operators reported soiling themselves while driving a bus. Wearing diapers is a common practice among bus operators, but diapers aren’t aren’t meant to be worn all day.
All of these coping mechanisms can lead to a litany of lifelong health problems – 30% of operators reported conditions like urinary tract infections, kidney infections, and constipation.
A lack of bathroom access also creates unsafe conditions for bus passengers and other people on the street – studies show that driving while you have to go to the bathroom is akin to driving under the influence.
According to ATU President John Costa, the situation has deteriorated over the past few decades. “We’re in a different world today, where management is all about the money and the company’s bottom line, but where’s the dignity of a person?” he said. “The managers making these decisions have private bathrooms 25 feet from their office, and we’re out here dealing with a complete lack of access.”
Under OSHA Sanitation Standard (29 CFR 1910.141), all employers are required to provide access to an adequate number of sanitary and fully equipped toilet facilities at places of employment. But an operator can only make an OSHA complaint if they requested to use the bathroom and were denied. Most operators don’t even get the chance to ask.
It all comes down to time. Pulling over during a shift while you have passengers can quickly become a hostile situation. And bus schedules, many of which are now created by a computer, don’t leave time at the end of a run for a proper break. With traffic worsening in most major metro areas, operators are often behind schedule, leaving them with negative time for breaks between bus runs.
One fix is to increase the amount of time between scheduled trips so that operators have a break between arriving and departing from a terminal. But many agencies are resistant to this, since operators would be able to complete fewer runs in a day.
Transit agencies can also work with cities to establish dedicated bus lanes, signal priority, and other treatments that free the bus from car traffic, which would create greater certainty in schedules (not to mention improve speed and reliability for riders).
To facilitate quick restroom access, agencies should also build bathroom facilities along or at the end of routes. This can be something as simple as a port-a-potty, as long as the agency makes a commitment to have it regularly cleaned. Agencies can also contract with businesses to guarantee operator access to their restrooms.
In 2018, ATU launched a national campaign to win better bathroom access for its operators, releasing research, videos, and even comics about the importance of bathroom access.
The campaign has faced an uphill battle, though the ATU recently had a breakthrough in Connecticut. A combination of operator protests and sustained engagement with electeds resulted in an unprecedented new bus operator contract that guarantees bathroom access.
Costa explains that the secret to the campaign’s success was to identify representatives that rely on ATU’s support during election season, and have one-on-one conversations to put them on the spot and ask why operators weren’t getting bathroom access.
With one state firmly in the win category, ATU can now use specific language from that contract as a model for other states to follow.
Transit agencies across the country are experiencing operator shortages, and it’s more important than ever that they work to make operating a bus an attractive position. ATU believes that increasing bathroom access will also save transit agencies money in the long run.
“If you address this problem now you’ll have less turnover. How many people want to work for a company where you can’t go to the bathroom without having an issue or getting assaulted?” says Costa. “Access to clean safe bathrooms is a matter of human dignity, and we shouldn’t have to fight this hard for something this basic.”
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