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City Truck Drivers Still on Road After Drug Test Failures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A series of incidents involving Los Angeles city truck drivers--including a fatal accident that last month resulted in a record $19-million settlement--has some officials calling for a review of driver safety and questioning whether the city is doing enough to protect the public.

Of the 2,600 employees driving city trucks, 113 have been allowed to operate the heavy vehicles in the last three years even though they had failed drug tests or lost the right to drive their personal vehicles, city records show.

The issue of fatigue caused by significant amounts of overtime has also been raised. Investigators said it appeared to be a factor in the fatal truck accident that resulted in the $19-million payout.

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City officials have questioned whether some of the drivers should be allowed to get behind the wheels of 15-ton trash trucks or other large vehicles and pilot them through residential streets.

“It’s a no-brainer that we should look at this,” said City Councilman Joel Wachs, chairman of the council’s Public Works Committee. “This is something we can act on to reduce our liability.”

In calling for a review of city policies and practices, Wachs said he is alarmed by the rising tide of lawsuit settlements and judgments involving accidents.

Last year, before the record personal injury settlement, the city paid $19.3 million in judgments and settlements involving all vehicle crashes, up from $11.2 million the year before.

For Wachs, the big issue is a city policy that allows truck drivers back on the road after twice failing drug or alcohol tests.

A total of 95 city drivers were returned to their jobs after testing positive at least once in the last three years for drugs or alcohol, according to city records. Of the 42 who failed a second test in that time, 23 are back on the job.

In one case last year, a trash truck driver was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving after crashing his 15-ton city truck into a car in Granada Hills. Two years earlier, he had been suspended briefly after failing a drug test. The worker was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in connection with the accident, and has since quit.

To get back to work after failing a drug test, a driver must serve a suspension, pass a retest and face additional random testing. The problem, some city officials acknowledge, is a policy that generally gives drivers until a third positive drug or alcohol test before they face possible removal.

“They get three cracks at the apple in the city,” said Drew Sones, assistant director of the city’s Sanitation Bureau. “That’s not my policy. I think three is too much. Zero tolerance is what I would like to see, but these drivers have a union and they negotiated that.”

The head of each department decides discipline on the basis of the seriousness of the violation and the worker’s disciplinary history.

The city’s Guide to Employee Discipline for truck drivers states that on the first positive random test for drugs or alcohol, the driver should face a penalty ranging from five days’ suspension to discharge. On the second positive test, the suggested penalty ranges from 20 days’ suspension to discharge, and on the third positive test, discharge is recommended. On average, drivers are given random tests twice a year.

Officials said the practice has been to follow the union contract, which calls for leniency after the first infraction when there has been no other misconduct.

“We could legally discharge someone on the first random test, but I’ve never seen it done unless there was something else, too,” said John de la Rosa, the city’s refuse collection manager and the key decision maker in firings.

Wachs questioned this practice.

“It seems to me that our policy is far too liberal and the stakes are far too high: people’s lives,” Wachs said. “I don’t think you ought to be able to get three chances.”

Officials of the Service Employees International Union, Local 347, said the practice of giving drivers second and third chances is humane. After positive tests, drivers are suspended and cannot return to the job unless they go through rehabilitation and get negative results on retests. Then they are subject to additional testing, said Julie Butcher, who heads the union representing Public Works Department drivers.

“I think it’s absolutely supportive of the highest levels of public safety,” she said. “The only way they can get back to work is if they are clean.”

In contrast, the California Department of Transportation automatically fires drivers after a second positive drug test, and the Los Angeles Unified School District fires drivers after one positive test, representatives said.

Caltrans personnel officer Dave Brubaker and union director Ron Glick, who represents 5,000 Caltrans drivers, both said the state policy is reasonable, and questioned whether the city was too lenient.

“As a union, we don’t want anyone out driving trucks on drugs,” Glick said, calling the city’s practice “strange. It’s unusual.”

Prior arrests for drunk driving have not kept some drivers from getting hired.

The city hired Louis Gysin in 1995 even though he disclosed on his job application that he had been fined for driving under the influence of alcohol in Glendale 12 years earlier, court records show.

Gysin lost control of a four-ton city truck on the Hollywood Freeway in 1998, triggering an accident that left one person dead and eight injured. The accident was the one that resulted in approval of the record personal injury payout: $19 million to a woman left with severe brain damage. That award was on top of $2 million paid to the family of the man killed in the crash.

Although alcohol was not a factor in the accident, the investigation raised another safety issue: driver fatigue.

54.5 Hours of Overtime in Previous 12 Days

According to the California Highway Patrol accident report, investigators suspect that Gysin, whose job classification is “power shovel operator,” may have been overcome with fatigue and momentarily dozed off--which Gysin has denied.

“I was fine,” Gysin said last week. “Someone pulled in front of me and I swerved to avoid them, but they never could prove that.” He also said his conviction for driving under the influence was so far in the past that it wasn’t relevant.

The California Highway Patrol report said Gysin had worked 54.5 hours of overtime--or an average of 4.5 extra hours per day--in the 12 days before his accident.

“His busy work schedule . . ., less sleep the night before the collision, and the fact that he had been working for over nine hours when the collision occurred, all point toward fatigue as a contributing factor,” said the CHP report.

Gysin pleaded no contest in December to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Officials said some drivers were working significant amounts of overtime at the time of Gysin’s accident because of understaffing and the city’s hurried efforts to prepare for El Nino rains.

Butcher, the union official, said she has heard fewer complaints about overwork since the city hired more drivers in the last couple of years.

Still, City Council members who met behind closed doors recently on the Gysin case expressed concern to managers about the amount of overtime that drivers have worked and whether safety is being compromised, Councilman Mike Feuer said.

“We have discussed the issues of employee fatigue and work schedules,” Feuer said. “That’s clearly got to be an important issue. We’ve got to strive to get the best we can from our work force, but there are consequences when people are overburdened.”

City Council members have also expressed concern about allowing employees to drive heavy trucks even after the Department of Motor Vehicles has revoked their right to drive their own cars for personal business. City records show that 18 Public Works and General Services employees were permitted to continue driving heavy trucks last year under such circumstances.

The violations that cost them their unrestricted licenses ranged from lapses in insurance to, in the case of six city trash truck drivers, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In all 18 cases, the workers appealed to the DMV and won restricted licenses, allowing them to drive only for work.

“As long as they got a waiver from the DMV and tested negative later [for alcohol], we can’t do anything,” said de la Rosa, the city’s refuse collection manager. “But personally, I don’t think they should be driving.”

DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff said the Legislature set the rules for waivers.

“The Legislature decided that on the first DUI it did not want to cost someone their job,” he said.

Sones, of the Sanitation Bureau, said he does not think public safety is being compromised by allowing workers to drive trash trucks when they are not allowed to drive their personal cars.

But Assistant City Atty. Diane Wentworth, who specializes in labor relations, disagreed that the city’s hands were tied. She said the city has discretion to keep a driver off the road if he or she is judged unsafe, whether or not a restricted license has been issued.

“It has to be decided on a case-by-case basis whether it is in the best interest of the city,” he said.


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