Metrobus drivers say tight schedules don’t leave enough time for bathroom breaks

December 30, 2011

Try driving a 40-foot-long bus through crowded city streets. Weaving around obstacles. Bouncing through potholes. Stopping and going. And not going to the restroom — sometimes for long stretches.

Metrobus operators say that’s their world, one with a lack of clean facilities along their routes and without enough time for bathroom breaks between runs, sometimes leading to chronic health issues.

Some operators say they have had to relieve themselves in a cup or bag at the back of buses or in doorways. Train operators have reportedly used pocket tracks on the rail system as “a lavatory” because they had “inadequate time” to have bathroom breaks, according to a 2010 report by Metro’s inspector general.

“There’s not enough time allowed in the schedules for operators to use the restroom,” said Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Local 689, which represents most Metro employees. “It’s not something the managers at the Jackson Graham Building give much thought to because they can go right down the hall whenever they want to use the bathroom,” she said, referring to Metro’s headquarters.

According to Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel, there are procedures that allow for bus operators to take bathroom breaks. They are supposed to contact central command and ask permission. Once they receive approval, the operator should stop the bus at “the appropriate location, properly secure the bus and notify the passengers on the bus that he/she needs to step off the bus momentarily to a restroom,” Stessel wrote in an e-mail.


Metrobus drivers say their tight schedules don’t allow enough time for bathroom breaks. (Stephanie K. Kuykendal/For the Washington Post)

“The fact is, most operators know their route and — just like anyone about to take a road trip — plan accordingly,” he said.

But union officials and bus operators say drivers often don’t have enough time for the breaks because the schedules are too tight, and there’s no leeway if they run late because of traffic. They might get a chance to go during layovers between routes, but those can sometimes be five minutes or less, operators said. Operators also get 20-minute meal breaks when they can use the restroom on their shifts, according to Metro officials.

However, Stessel acknowledged that operators might not have adequate time for bathroom breaks. He said Metro recently opened a hot line for bus operators to give input on making changes to the scheduling of routes.

Union officials say it’s not just a question of driver comfort; it’s a health issue.

Jeter said she hears of at least one incident each quarter where a Metrobus operator has developed a problem, usually a urinary tract infection, related to having to wait too long to use a bathroom.

Larry Hanley, president of the national Amalgamated Transit Union, said he’s heard of cases throughout the country where bus operators have developed digestive diseases and bladder problems from not being able to use a bathroom frequently.

Hanley, who started his career driving a bus in Brooklyn in the 1970s, cited a case in 2004 where a driver in Oregon was killed when her bus rolled over her after she didn’t properly set her brake. She was running behind schedule and was racing to get to a bathroom, according to news reports.

“It is a fundamental dignity question,” Hanley said. “Nowhere else would it be assumed that bosses would be allowed to mistreat people to the rights of their bodily function.”

Metro employees said it’s an issue that affects them and passengers.

On a recent afternoon, a union official tried to get one of the bus operators to chat about the long routes and short times for bathroom breaks, but the operator had no time as he parked at the Minnesota Avenue station.

“I’m on my way to the bathroom,” the operator yelled as he jumped off his bus and hustled to the bathroom at the rail station. “I have 11 minutes and then my customers are going to get salty.”

Bus operators spoke about the problem on the condition of anonymity because Metro employees are not allowed to speak to the media without prior authorization.

Another operator waiting to start his route said he often doesn’t drink enough water because he’s worried he’ll have to stop for a bathroom break along his route. He recently got stuck in major congestion and had to hold his water for more than two hours.

“I could hardly get out of my seat,” he said. “That water just built up on me.”

One operator said he’s had customers ask, “What the heck are you doing?”

“You apologize and try to explain that traffic ate into your time for a quick break, and you let them load onto the bus at a stop while you run to use the restroom.”

Another operator added: “Sometimes they’ll ask, ‘How long will you be?’ You tell them, ‘I’ll be right back.’ ”

For women who are pregnant, stopping for a restroom break becomes essential, bus operators said.

When one driver was seven months pregnant, she said she had to simply “stop and go when I needed to, regardless of who was on the bus or where I was.”

Some longtime drivers say life used to be different.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, guards at federal buildings used to let them in to use the restrooms, but now they often aren’t allowed into the secure facilities. Some restaurants and convenience stores once let Metrobus operators freely use their bathrooms, but many operators say that’s no longer the case because they’re expected to purchase something.

One driver said she recently asked a guard at a federal building to use the bathroom.

“The security officer said no, so I took it upon myself to find another spot,” she said. Her bus was nearly full of passengers, but she said they didn’t get too mad at her for having to leave the bus for a moment. When she passed by the ice skating rink on the Mall, she pulled over and used the bathroom.

“When you have to go, you’ve got to go,” she said. “You simply can’t hold it.”

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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