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Chapel Hill Transit Drivers Reach Final Stop

by Matt Robinson
Illustration by Mike Weston


BUSChapel Hill Transit workers are feeling a little stressed these days.

Due to a shortage of drivers, current employees—especially part-timers—are being made to work as much as 45 to 50 hours a week, and the Town is contracting drivers to fill gaps left by a high turnover rate.

According to drivers who requested anonymity for this article, the CHT administration assigns hours and routes to drivers based not on employee availability or scheduling preference, but rather on CHT need only.

This means that drivers who have classes, appointments, or child care responsibilities must make a choice between ignoring their personal or familial obligations and working longer hours or prioritizing their lives and families first at the risk of disciplinary action from their employer.

"It really messes up your personal life," said one driver.

Although drivers view this form of scheduling as an unfair practice, it is permissible under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The CHT administration has quoted the FLSA in defending their right to make employees work as much as CHT deems necessary to make up for the driver shortage.

The CHT offers its employees the opportunity to contract with the Town, thereby giving drivers the freedom to work as much or as little as they like.

The trade off for this apparent autonomy is the relinquishment of all benefits and job security, and disqualification for future raises or advancement while contracted. Currently, over 20 drivers are on contract status, while approximately 85 are listed as full or part-time on the Town's employee roster. Once the shortage of drivers is over, the contracted drivers will likely be jettisoned.

According to interviewed drivers, the shortage of drivers stems from high turnover rate, which results from several problems encountered in the CHT system.

Foremost among the problems contributing to high turnover is dissatisfaction over driver schedules. Inadequate route layover and break times, hours spent on stand-by, and last-minute demands on employees to work longer hours in addition to their usual day cause great dissatisfaction among the workers. Furthermore, new hires are led to expect adequate and fair schedules, but once on the job they find themselves working far more than they were told in recruitment.

Having personal obligations, many new hires quickly decide to go to contract status. This means that drivers hired and trained to help decrease the shortage end up contributing to it. Workers trained for full- and part-time positions find that work hours assigned are too much for their schedules, and instead, under contract, choose to work fewer hours than they would have, had their original schedules been more fair to them.

A second reason for high turnover is the low morale among drivers, due to scheduling issues as well as a general feeling that the management treats drivers poorly. For example, although CHT doesn't yet provide thick winter coats to its drivers during cold months, if a driver wears his or her own coat to stay warm then they can be charged with being out of uniform.

Other factors that contribute to low morale and high turnover include frustrations over an evaluation system perceived as unfair and confusing. "No one seems able to explain the evaluation procedure, but our raises and advancement depend on it," said a driver with over 10 years experience.

Workers also relate patterns of favoritism among drivers by management.

Rider and citizen complaints weigh heavily against drivers, while the management has little concern for investigating such incidents. Minor infractions remain in driver's files throughout their career, to be used against them at future evaluations.

"We give this town excellent service. I'm really sick of being treated this way," said another driver.

There is fear of retaliation for speaking out or displeasing a supervisor. Although many drivers are members of a union, Amalgamated Transportation Workers of America (Local 1565), the union is blocked from being effective by NC General Statute 95-97, which forbids municipalities from negotiations or contract bargaining with unions. With no effective voice, many drivers have become passive, cynical observers of the CHT system.

According to drivers interviewed for this article, even the Employee Committee, a group of drivers and supervisors, including the Transportation Director and an assistant Town Manager, which was designed to open lines of communication between workers and management, is ineffective and achieves no democracy of decision making. The Committee meeting takes place in the Transportation Director's office, not on neutral ground.

"It seems," said one driver, "all our ideas are shot down once they get to the Employee Committee. Drivers don't feel our input is welcome at any level."

  Matt Robinson lives in Carrboro and is a long-time ally of the Black Public Works Association, which presents its worker-and community-supportive Freedom Budget to the Chapel Hill Town Council again this year.  

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