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Bus Drivers Outspoken Over Demerits

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two dozen Orange County bus drivers are fighting to save their jobs after they received demerits for failing to announce the names of major bus stops during random inspections.

The drivers and their union have filed grievances against the Orange County Transportation Authority in an effort to remove the demerits from their records.

The disciplinary action is part of the agency’s aggressive effort to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires, among other things, that major bus transfer points be called out so that blind passengers know when to get off the bus.

Several blind people have complained that they missed their stops because of silent bus drivers, OCTA officials acknowledged Tuesday.

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“We have now made this a priority for us,” said John Standiford, an OCTA spokesman. “It is no different than any safety rules.”

But some drivers complained that the agency’s punishment is Draconian. Drivers received 75 demerits for failing to announce major stops. Those who receive a total of 100 points are usually fired, they said.

“All it takes is this . . . and one more infraction and you’re out,” said driver Don Shagam, who knows several colleagues who have received the demerits but is not facing disciplinary action himself. “I understand how important (ADA compliance) is to (OCTA). But a first-time offense should not be job-threatening. They should give the drivers a warning first.”

About 30 bus drivers have received demerits for violating the announcement rules during the past month, according to Arlene Mordasini, secretary-treasurer for the Teamsters Local 911, which represents the drivers. Of that group, 24 would have a total of 100 demerits or more each if the ADA violations are allowed to stand, Mordasini said.

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The union hopes to strike an agreement with OCTA that would protect the drivers from being dismissed. Mordasini said that no driver has been fired so far, but that a formal agreement has yet to be approved.

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“We don’t have an issue with complying with ADA,” Mordasini said. “Our issue is that we feel the authority has instituted unreasonable and unfair rules.”

John Catoe, OCTA’s director of operations, said the disciplinary action was taken only after management repeatedly informed drivers about ADA requirements over a three-year period.

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In June, officials distributed a memo warning that failure to announce stops could result in disciplinary proceedings, Catoe said.

“We don’t want to fire anyone if they are doing the job,” he said. “But conversely, if someone is failing to make the (stop) announcements, that person can cause (himself or herself) to be fired. That could occur.”

Catoe said he expected that only bus drivers who have been previously warned about the issue would face termination proceedings.

Blind people often complain about missing their destinations because bus drivers fail to announce their stops, said Melinda Johnson, a blind woman who works at the Blind-Braille Institute in Anaheim.

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“They pass your stop and you have no idea where you are,” Johnson said.

OCTA has received several calls about the problem, and some blind people recently brought their case before the agency’s board of directors, Standiford said.

“This has been a shortcoming of the service,” Standiford said. “This is an example of the board responding to the public.”

But drivers and union officials contend that the agency should not expect all drivers to immediately announce each major stop.

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“You don’t institute rules and regulations and expect everyone to be in compliance within a few short weeks,” Mordasini said.

Shagam, a 14-year OCTA veteran, said that drivers sometimes simply forget to announce stops as they attempt to keep track of traffic and deal with passengers.

“There are a lot of things to concentrate on,” Shagam said.

Catoe stressed that the vast majority of drivers follow the announcement rules and attempt to assist blind people any way they can. The Braille Institute’s Johnson agrees.

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“Generally, they are pretty terrific,” she said, noting that an OCTA driver once got off his bus and walked her to her destination after he forgot to announce her stop.

Johnson said that the Braille Institute trains blind people to ask a driver when they first enter the bus to announce their destination. She also suggested that blind people ask the driver about the progress of the trip every few minutes.


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