January 28, 2014
By Marc Bussanich
Washington, DC—Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union testified before the House Transportation Committee recently and told lawmakers the country has to invest more in public transit to keep up with surging demand. He also told them about the grueling working conditions of interstate bus drivers, which drew a sharp rebuke from the American Bus Association.
In an interview, Hanley said he told Congressional members about the need to extend the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to bus drivers to ensure they are paid overtime after working 40 hours so that they don’t have to work longer hours and thereby jeopardize passengers’ and their own safety.
The American Bus Association, which represents motorcoach and tour company owners in the United States and Canada, charged Hanley and the ATU for “significantly misunderstanding driver fatigue and safety issues.”
In a statement, ABA’s president and CEO, Peter Pantuso, said that the “union is making a fundamental mistake believing that making significant changes to the [FSLA] will improve safety.”
There was a time when the federal government heavily regulated the intercity motorcoach industry until it was deregulated starting in the 1980s. The direct effect of deregulation was a surge in competition; from hundreds of companies providing inter-city bus travel to thousands today.
While the increased competition might keep fares low, it also seems to be keeping bus drivers’ wages low. According to the Department of Labor, the median wage for inter-city bus drivers is less than $35,000 annually.
Hanley noted that many of them are driving more than 40 hours per week but aren’t being paid overtime. Senator Chuck Schumer has introduced the Driver Fatigue Prevention Act that would mandate drivers be paid overtime after 40 hours so that they don’t have to work another job or drive additional hours.
But the ABA’s response to paying drivers for overtime is to threaten layoffs and a shift to more part-time employment.
Interstate bus drivers used to be exempt from the FSLA when the federal government heavily regulated working conditions before the dawn of deregulation in the industry. But with drivers commonly working longer hours and suffering from driving fatigue as a result, the ATU wants the FSLA to apply again to interstate bus drivers.
“Roughly 85 percent of American workers are covered by the FSLA, which was designed as a protection for workers from employer abuse and designed also to get more people working in a weak economy by making it more expensive for employers to keep people working longer, deadly hours,” Hanley said. “The ABA doesn’t want that because they don’t believe in bus drivers having fair labor standards.”
Hanley mentioned a 2012 report by the National Transportation Safety Board where undercover investigators interviewed interstate bus drivers to learn firsthand their working conditions. According to the report, the drivers told the investigators that they’re not getting sufficient sleep and are working longer hours than they wish because they fear the carriers will give them less work if they turn down driving jobs.
“It’s a very, very hard industry to work in and we have in the ABA a trade organization that values profit over safety,” Hanley said.
In response to Hanley’s testimony in Congress, the ABA issued a press release explaining that more enforcement action to stop unsafe motorcoach operators rather than regulation of the industry will improve safety.
Hanley remains unimpressed and points to the drivers’ responses in the NTSB report that they’re afraid to turn down driving jobs out of fear they’ll be denied work.
“The ABA is vociferously against any meaningful reform on behalf of working people in their industry.”