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Five Top Employment Issues

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The public transit industry has some unique employment issues, especially where transit coach operators, who make up the vast majority of transit employment, are concerned.Costs associated with the five issues described below have helped to accelerate an industry trend towards increased usage of private contractors. Please see the first of my series on privatization in public transit for more information.

Absenteeism

New York Braces For Possible Transit Strike
Chris Hondros/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Absenteeism continues to be a major problem in the public transit industry.  The way that absences are counted in at least some transit agencies potentially contributes to this problem.  In a typical arrangement, each absence that is not prearranged like a vacation day counts at a point.  If an employee accumulates enough points, then they are subject to disciplinary action.  Five points frequently subjects you to a verbal warning, and the punishment increases until you may be fired for accumulating a twelvth point in a rolling 365 day period.  This leniency results in high absence rates - 20 days a year, not including vacation, in Boston in 2003, and an incredible 36 days a year at Los Angeles's RTD in the 1980s.

Workers Compensation

Workers compensation is a serious industry problem, as the transportation industry is one of the more dangerous ones in the country; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the transportation and warehousing industry had the greatest rate of days missed from work due to injury, the second greatest absolute number of fatal accidents, and the third highest rate of fatal accidents in 2008.  In the transit industry, many of the injuries result from long hours spent in uncomfortable seating; assaults on operators from passengers are also unfortunately on the rise.  Fortunately, from personal experience I can attest that seating for bus drivers has significantly improved in the past ten years as transit agencies begin to realize that spending more on a quality seat pays off in the long run. 

Interactions With Passengers

Interactions with passengers represent another unique driver issue.  While one might believe these interactions to be similar to other customer service interactions, there is an important distinction: the Starbucks customer wants to be in the store, while it's likely that the passenger does not want to be on the bus.  While data about the incident rate of driver assaults is unfortunately not available, many in the industry believe the number of assaults to be increasing.  Transit agencies are attempting to forestall assaults by installing cameras, driver partitions that separate the driver from the passengers, and doing away with certain fare policies, such as transfers, that are responsible for much of the conflict between drivers and passengers. Irate passengers are the number one threat to driver safety.

Breaks

In terms of breaks, bus drivers are almost unique amongst all job classifications in that they have no set time and place to take coffee and lunch breaks. Instead, transit agencies deal with the problem of breaks in one of two ways. In one, the layover at the end of each bus trip makes up the driver break Layovers are discussed more here . In the other, drivers will be awarded a lunch break at a particular location, which could be at a terminus point, which they may have to travel to. Of course, when drivers absolutely need to use the restroom or buy a coffee, they are usually allowed to pull over at a stop and head into a restaurant - please be easy on them when they do this, because unlike you they cannot use the restroom at their leisure.

Split Shifts

Split shifts are yet another phenomenon unique to the transit industry. Split shifts come about due to the fact that most transit systems operate more service during the peak periods than they do at other times. Thus, for the drivers who operate these peak runs, there is no work available for them to do in the middle of the day. In a split shift, a driver will typically work three to five hours in the morning, have anywhere from a one to three hour break, and then work three to five hours in the afternoon. This break is with rare exceptions not paid, but the driver is not completely free; for example, they cannot go home to have a beer after their first piece because their work day is not over. Read more about how bus driver shifts are created .

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