TriMet bus

A TriMet bus. The union that represents the Portland-area transit agency has pushed for more protections for bus drivers since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. TriMet, which also operates the MAX light-rail system, transported an average of 1.9 million

riders a week in February but only about 1 million riders the week of March 15.

For two consecutive days last week, more than 100 operators for TriMet, the Portland area’s public transit provider, called in sick.

The calls were a dramatic increase that came on the tail end of two long, surreal and frustrating weeks for many transit operators who are still showing up during the coronavirus pandemic and despite their concerns about personal safety.

On Thursday, TriMet confirmed, some 160 operators called in sick. On Friday, the union representing those workers estimated at least 122 called in ill. A typical day during cold or flu season sees maybe 30 or 40 people call in ill, union officials said.

TriMet said the wave of calls didn’t disrupt service — the transit agency just calls in more people to work. On Friday, the agency announced it would make sweeping service cuts early next month to most bus lines, cutting frequency across the tri-county area.

But according to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents some 1,800 TriMet employees, those two days were the culmination of two weeks of simmering frustration. The union stressed that it didn’t organize the workers to call in sick. TriMet and the union remain at odds over a collective bargaining agreement, which expired last fall.

‘Our folks are continuing to work’

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the union has pushed for greater protections for bus drivers in particular and said TriMet was slow to act.

“Our folks are continuing to work,” Jon Hunt, the union’s vice president said last week. “A lot of them are scared, a lot of them are concerned.”

Other transit agencies stopped enforcing fares to limit face time with customers. Or restricted access to priority seating areas near bus drivers. Or mandated that passengers board through the rear doors.

“We feel pretty strongly that if they would have taken precautions that we asked, and that other agencies did, then they might not be looking at these numbers,” Krista Cordova, a labor relations coordinator with the union, said in an email. “They put their bottom line before the safety and wellbeing of our members.”

One veteran operator, who’s worked for TriMet for more than a decade, said morale is low among front-line workers, and they feel unheard.

Roberta Altstadt, a TriMet spokeswoman, said the agency struggled to get additional sanitation supplies for its 1,700 operators and other front-line workers. They initially distributed 1-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer, she said, but TriMet continues to hand out more supplies as they come in.

“That includes a large order of distillery-produced hand sanitizer,” she said.

TriMet also secured additional disinfectant wipes to give out to operators, she said Friday, “and those should go out soon.”

“As I’m sure you are aware,” she said, “hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes have been in short supply with many orders being canceled.”

TriMet has since acquired 8-ounce hand sanitizer bottles to distribute to drivers. Hand soap has also been handed out for staff to use when they stop along their route for breaks.

TriMet has steadfastly said the buses aren’t equipped to allow the majority passengers to board from the rear doors, a policy operators have called for to give employees additional space at the front of the bus.

Altstadt cited public health officials’ guidance that 3 feet of social distancing is sufficient as long as that contact is not prolonged. TriMet believes that by eliminating cash payments, it is helping keep drivers safe.

The operator and the union believe the agency isn’t doing enough.

Altstadt said TriMet expects to make an announcement this week about giving operators additional space from drivers.

Hunt said union members fear layoffs. Meanwhile, the agency, which has added service in recent years due to state funding from a 2017 transportation package, continues to hire. Hunt said last week the agency was holding new-operator training classes with 20 people packed into a room, what he said is an unnecessary risk amid the pandemic.

“OK, folks, who’s in charge?” Hunt said of that decision.

Altstadt said TriMet is an essential service, and training new operators is critical to its operations.

She said TriMet’s attorneys reviewed Gov. Kate Brown’s social distancing order banning gatherings of certain sizes and the agency determined it was following those guidelines. “While we had maintained more than 3 feet of space between people in the classroom, we have now expanded the room to ensure 6 feet of spacing to be consistent with the Governor’s new order,” Altstadt said.

Meanwhile, ridership plunged more than 47% last week, and TriMet’s service cuts go into effect April 5.

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