The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Bus Operators at the Very Front of the COVID Epidemic

Aug 29, 2022

An investigation by the California Department of Public Health found that, when compared to workers in all workplaces in California, bus and rail workers were five times as likely to catch COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it. This investigation clearly shows public transportation workers are at the very front facing this deadly disease.

This result is not very surprising to the transportation workers who know their demanding work conditions very well. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) is only one example.

More than 80% of riders of L.A. Metro buses are workers commuting to their workplaces in Los Angeles. Especially during business hours, the buses get very crowded. If the bus operators don’t accept a passenger at a bus stop due to overcrowding, the managers write the workers up. If they stop at all bus stops, passengers fill the buses up to the front, which can quickly spread the COVID virus.

L.A. Metro management could increase the number of buses to decrease overcrowding. But management does nothing to improve the demanding work conditions or pay wages at levels that can attract bus operators in high numbers. With $19.12 an hour in 2022, L.A. Metro bus operators have one of the nation’s lowest entry wages. The new contract approved by the bus operators increased the entry wage to $23.00, which is still quite low. It doesn’t even cover the cost of living in Los Angeles County.

As a result, L.A. Metro is chronically short of bus operators and has been advertising for more than 500 bus operator openings for months. This bus operator shortage was similarly dire before the pandemic started. It got worse during the pandemic because bus operators were getting sick or staying home to avoid COVID.

At the same time, this shortage did not stop L.A. Metro from firing and suspending bus operators for any little thing, thus depleting the ranks of the operators even more. Last December alone, Metro hired 11 bus operators but lost 32. Today, one out of six bus operators is missing.

To compensate for this shortage, L.A. Metro forces overtime on its bus operators to work long hours, up to 13-hour shifts and 6 days a week. Because housing in Los Angeles is so expensive, many bus operators commute one or two hours each way. They get little or no sleep. They are completely exhausted, drained, and spent. Such demanding work conditions and low pay lead these bus operators to quit L.A. Metro and look for jobs that pay higher wages.

L.A. Metro floats in money it has gathered through the Federal COVID and public transportation aids and sales taxes. But these billions of dollars do not reach the bus operators to improve their working conditions or increase their wages. Over the last 10 years, Metro has slashed what it pays in wages and benefits compared to its overall budget by 35%. Thus, Metro has held down wages and benefits even as its budget has doubled in size.

The less money L.A. Metro pays to its bus operators, the more money it can give to banks, financial companies, wealthy real estate developers, engineering companies, and lawyers. That’s how L.A. Metro turns money that was meant for mass transit into profits for the very rich.

It is this profit drive that has led L.A. Metro to neglect the health and safety of its operators and led to the sickness and death of large numbers of bus operators.