Sep 19, 2022 - News

CATS bus drivers say they face constant harassment, and security measures fall short

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

While Renee Holzbach was driving her Charlotte Area Transit System bus four years ago, a passenger walked through the doors and punched her in the face, breaking her nose, for no reason.

  • Even though she was traumatized, she stayed in the job until earlier this year.

But when driver Ethan Rivera was shot and killed during a road range incident in February, it sparked a fear in her. So in March, she gave up a nearly 14-year-career that she had dreamt about ever since she was a child, mesmerized by the controls on a bus.

  • “My life is more valuable than anything that I had invested into that company,” she says. “I have grandchildren, I have children, and I have a purpose. I don’t want my life to end over something that occurred while I was at work driving a bus.”

What’s happening: Transit operators say their safety concerns have largely gone unaddressed for years, even before Rivera’s murder, and that’s compelling drivers to leave their jobs. Current drivers spoke to Axios under the condition of anonymity out of a fear of retaliation.

  • Meanwhile, CATS has cut service because of a shortage of bus operators.

The other side: In the time since Rivera’s murder, the system has boosted security and implemented periodic de-escalation training, CATS CEO John Lewis told Axios. “A $2.20 cent fare is not worth your life,” he says.

  • Lewis called Rivera’s death a tragedy and an “anomaly,” but says he’s not sure what else the organization could do beyond those measures.
  • Over the last five years, Lewis says there have been an average of about nine assaults per year within its vehicles, including those involving operators and team members.
Renee Holzbach. Photo courtesy Renee Holzbach

Why it matters: Nearly 13,000 residents don’t have access to a car, most of whom are in the city’s lower-income “crescent” where communities of color are concentrated. They count on a reliable bus system for daily needs like getting to work and school.

  • But that system can’t function without drivers.

What they’re saying: Drivers say they are being blamed for systemwide problems by the agency and the public, which only exacerbates the threats they face.

  • Earlier last month, CATS was frequently missing hundreds of bus trips each day. The agency tweeted the number of driver absences daily, and told riders to expect delays. Eventually, CATS cut frequency on some routes to make the buses more reliable.
  • But operators must deal with the brunt of customers unhappy about the situation.

Lewis says that they have more operators on their payroll than they need on a daily basis, in order to account for things like sick days, regular days off or vacation time.

But for the last six months, he says the absenteeism has surpassed what they prepared for.

  • “The reality of that is it impacted our ability to provide service,” he says. “We can go back and forth on why that is, but at the end of the day, we expect our operators to come to work and provide the service that we hired them to provide.”

Reality check: Our partners at WBTV reported that despite Lewis publicly describing the absences as unexcused and sick days, the totals the agency was tweeting included planned absences like vacation.

Plus, CATS operators tell me that the problem isn’t just caused by the lack of workers.

  • Last month, WBTV reported that there are so many broken buses, drivers often have to wait for a bus that is working to complete its route before they can drive their own.

Safety concerns: Drivers described a near constant stream of vitriol and threats.

They said they want more security presence, including on the buses themselves, from law enforcement, to deter incidents.

The other side: CATS contracts with Allied Universal for security, and said in an email that CMPD is notified and responds to situations that require law enforcement on a bus. 

  • CATS has increased its security budget to add more officers for roving patrols on buses in the future, Lewis told Axios. While they can’t have an officer on every bus, he says they’ve heard from bus drivers about particular routes or locations that are “trouble spots.”

Yes, but: Drivers tell me they can’t directly call 911 when there’s an incident on their bus. Instead, they must call what’s known as the bus operations control center, which can alert law enforcement.

  • In an emailed statement, a CATS spokesperson said operators must keep their phones stowed away while driving for safety reasons, but there are “a variety of ways” to request emergency assistance.

One driver said she switched from the night shift to a daytime one because she was worried for her safety. A rider recently pulled a machete on her, she says.

  • Another said she doesn’t drive routes that leave from one side of the transit center where she notices more drug deals.

Other transit employees have faced workplace safety issues, too.

In June, Transit Management of Charlotte, the company that employs bus drivers, paid a $3,000 fine to the North Carolina Department of Labor after its Occupational Safety and Health Division issued the company two citations.

  • In a follow up investigation to 2020 citations, the OSH division found that employees working in a spray paint booth in the body shop were not being fit tested before using a respirator, and that they were not being re-trained in respiratory protection every 12 months, according to documents the department provided to Axios.
  • Lewis called the citations “singular anomalies” and said they won’t happen again.

The big picture: In a February survey from the American Public Transportation Association, 71% of transit agencies across the country said they had to make cuts to service or push back service increases because of worker shortages.

  • In a July report titled “Bus Operators in Crisis,” New York-based TransitCenter attributed the lack of operators to inadequate pay and the job’s increased difficulty, including an uptick in assaults on drivers. The workforce is also older, leading to a wave of retirements.
  • The number of assaults on transit operators per “unlinked passenger trip,” which refer to total boardings on an individual vehicle, increased nearly fourfold between 2009 and 2020, per the report.

Lewis told me that RATP Dev, the company that manages Transit Management of Charlotte, has reached a tentative agreement with the union that represents drivers. Lewis says it includes “significant” wage increases and shift differentials, which means drivers would be paid more for working on holidays, weekends or late at night.

  • “We’re trying to do everything we can to make this industry more attractive, not only to our current operators, but to new employees that come in,” he says.
  • CATS needs 571 bus operators to be fully staffed, and as of September, it has 483.

But CATS drivers rejected the contract in a 198-4 vote, WBTV reported Wednesday evening, which means RATP Dev and the union will head back to the negotiating table.

Of note: The city is not seeing the same scale of a crisis when it comes to light rail operators. At a July meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, Lewis said that’s in part because the rail operator is behind closed doors and doesn’t interact with the public much.

What riders see: Meg Fencil rides the number 16 bus every other day from near Tyvola Road to just south of Uptown for her job as director of engagement and impact with the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte.

Fencil describes the mood among riders as anxious in the morning, as passengers wonder if they’ll make it to work on time, then fatigue later in the evening, after a long workday.

  • She recently witnessed a handful of passengers heckle a driver after the bus had broken down. It was hot, and at least one of the scheduled buses had already not come, as it was before CATS adjusted its schedule to reduce the missed trips.
  • “Not many people want to go into a career where they face the possibility of hostile interactions with the public on a daily basis,” Fencil says. “So this is unfortunately a self-perpetuating cycle. When there aren’t enough operators, then more routes are late or missed entirely, riders understandably get frustrated because they’re facing job loss if they don’t get to work on time.”

The bottom line: Charlotte has a goal of running buses at least every 15 minutes on every route. But without people to drive the buses, the city is moving in the opposite direction.

Editor’s note: We updated this story on Sept. 23 to reflect that drivers rejected a contract from RATP Dev, the company the city contracts with to manage much of bus operations, per WBTV.

If you are a bus rider or driver, we’d like to hear from you. How have CATS’ recent challenges affected your daily life? Share your thoughts: [email protected].

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