Union Says Dead Radio Forced Metrobus Driver to Use Phone to Call Control Center

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Leaders of the union that represents Metro's frontline workers are pressing agency officials to return to duty a bus driver who used her cellphone on the job last month.

Union officials said that the driver was calling the central control center because her work-issued radio did not work and that she never moved the bus while talking on her phone.

The unnamed employee, who has been on paid leave for nearly two weeks, was photographed holding a cellphone to her ear by an anonymous rider. The picture was posted on a blog, and Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said the employee would be terminated if an investigation revealed she had violated policy.

The case became the first test of Metro's new zero-tolerance policy against non-emergency cellphone use by bus and train operators. The rule took effect July 13 after a widely circulated video showed an operator apparently texting while his train sped down the tracks. Previously, an operator could only be suspended without pay for five days if caught using a phone on duty.

Jackie L. Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most of Metro's train and bus operators, said Wednesday that call logs show the driver was talking to the control center.

"Honestly, I don't understand why it's taken so long," she said. "Central has the taped conversation. So I don't know what else they're looking for."

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato declined to comment on the union's claims because the agency doesn't discuss ongoing personnel investigations.

Anthony Wayne Garland, chief safety office for Local 689, said a witness on the bus supports the driver's story. Garland said some employees are frustrated by the current climate. Riders have become increasingly vigilant after the June 22 Red Line crash that left nine dead and injured 80.

"It's a problem when you're trying to appease the Metro board and the media and the public that's using the system," Garland said. "Sometimes you've got to have a little faith in the people you employ."

Metro has been faced with a series of embarrassing incidents involving bus and train operators this summer. The Washington Post reported this week that a train operator who tested positive for drugs is in rehab after bringing a train that was two cars too long to the Greenbelt Station. In July, another train operator was suspended for 12 days without pay after he was videotaped apparently sleeping behind the controls of a moving train.

Metrobus has also had its share of embarrassing episodes. In the past month, a driver has been charged with kidnapping a passenger; a driver was discovered driving with a suspended license; and another received a written reprimand for reading while transporting passengers.

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