Thousands of people in the St. Louis region depend on Metro Transit’s 83 total MetroBus routes and 46 miles of MetroLink tracks to get where they need to go every day. But on Monday, many of those transit users were left waiting at their usual stops for many minutes, some even for hours, as expected public transportation vehicles did not arrive.
The transit agency cited a driver shortage early Monday as the cause of the delays, putting out a statement that read, in part, “Due to an unusually high number of MetroBus operators already calling off work and declining to work extra assignments, we anticipate that we will not be in position to deliver the normally high quality service the region has come to expect every day.”
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske heard from riders who ran into snags on Monday – and also talked with Catina Wilson, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788, and St. Louis Public Radio digital reporter Kae Petrin.
Wilson said that Metro is at fault for Monday’s transit issues, not the union.
“This is Metro’s inability to hire enough people to do this job,” she said. “Our job is a hard job ... and just the level of expectations that they put on the drivers, and the lack of support that they give the drivers, make it a very frustrating situation for our operators.”
Wilson, who is now a full-time union officer, was a MetroBus driver for many years prior.
“I’ve sat in that seat,” she told Fenske. “I know what it takes to get the job done, and these guys, they go above and beyond. We’re working 10-hour days – we’re driving 10 hours – held on duty, some of us, for 15 hours a day. This is what it’s taking to keep transit running, and our members are doing it every day. And what happened on Monday ... this was just people saying, ‘OK, we’ve talked to you about it. We’ve asked you to give us the respect we deserve. We’ve asked you to give us the necessary tools we need to do the job. We’ve asked you to keep not only us but the public safe.’”
Wilson said the union is telling drivers to “hold on” and that, “We’re working on it.”
“But they’re out there on the front lines,” she added. “And it’s easy to say, ‘Hold on, we’re working,’ when you’re not dealing with the assaults. Metro’s turning their backs on you. There was a point where they were just denying our work comp claims. Now they’re terminating people after they’re assaulted. So our drivers are up against a lot.”
Metro, which received an invitation to have a representative on the show, sent a lengthy statement, shortly before the live segment began, from Executive Director Jessica Mefford-Miller.
It read, in part, “We have made significant progress toward a new agreement [with the union] over the last several months. While we still have some important issues to resolve, we are nearing the end of this process and looking forward to the ratification of a new contract. We work to avoid conflicts with the labor unions that represent our team members. Instead, we want to work with them to support our workforce.”
Petrin, whose ongoing coverage of transit-related topics in the region has most recently delved into Metro’s planned bus system overhaul, noted that the drivers’ situation hasn’t appeared to be part of that discussion, at least publicly.
“The Metro Reimagined plan is very much [public facing],” they said. “They’re asking for public input, they’ve revised a lot of the routes based on public feedback, [and] there is some stuff that [would] peripherally affect drivers … but the way the plan is presented is very much for the riders.”
Petrin added that Metro is in a tight spot right now fiscally, as evidenced by that same plan, which is attempting to “offer more frequent service with basically no change in budget.”
“There’s a lot of sacrifices that they’re making on the rider front,” they said, “and I’m sure that that is even more complicated when it comes to their employees.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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