Hondu Brown, a strike captain, has been a bus operator for 29 years.

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There is no sleeping in the SEPTA break room.

Outside the bus depot at 26th and Allegheny where he works, Hondu Brown, the strike captain on location, is working the grill. Inside the building, they’ve got pool tables; they’ve got couches, he explains as he tends to short rib, bratwurst and fish. But transit operators are not allowed to sleep on the premises.

A typical 12-hour shift is really 14-hour work day, Brown says, because he needs an hour before to prepare and then later, to end the day. But, the no-sleep-allowed policy on-site is particularly a sore point if you’re working a swing shift, as many drivers do. On a 12-hour swing shift, the driver has a four-hour (unpaid) break, during which he or she is free to leave, to sleep at home if they like.

But driver Mike Cichonke’s commute from home is too far of a hike to do that, he says. “They tell you can do what you want,” says Cichonke. “What I am going to do? I live in Bucks.”

Among concerns over pension caps and health benefits, rest periods and breaks have been a sticking point in strike negotiations. TWU Local 234 maintains that their concern is driver fatigue, and therefore, traffic safety.

Union members who operate Philadelphia’s buses, trolleys and subways went on strike Monday after negotiations with SEPTA went nowhere.

TWU spokesman Jamie Horwitz says the union is pushing for scheduling that would allow operators healthier sleep routines. “[SEPTA’s top brass] refuses to do that to maintain what they call management flexibility,” he says. If the company wants to eliminate accidents and save legal bills, Horwitz argues, then they should expand rest periods.

Mike Cichonke, a bus operator, has been picketing with colleagues outside the 26th and Allegheny bus depot
Mike Cichonke, a bus operator, has been picketing with colleagues outside the 26th and Allegheny bus depot Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

SEPTA would not share crash statistics with Billy Penn before the close of the strike. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation data, which tracks all commercial buses in Philadelphia, shows more than 950 accidents from 2011-2015, killing 19 people.

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch told Billy Penn in an email that the transit agency is listening to workers. “As we have noted throughout negotiations, SEPTA has responded to operational and non-operational issues raised by the union. SEPTA is committed to providing TWU members, and all employees, with a safe work environment,” he wrote. “SEPTA and TWU Local 234 have established a collaborative process, through the TWU Joint Health & Safety Committee, that allows for safety issues to be raised and resolved as they are brought up. SEPTA does not wait for contract negotiations to talk about employee safety.”

Through a PennDOT waiver to state law, public transit bus drivers have looser regulations than other commercial motorists. Bus operators in Pennsylvania cannot be on duty for more than 16 hours per day, cannot work more 30 hours in two days back-to-back, and must have have an eight-hour rest period between shifts.

When Brown works a split shift, he stays at the depot rather than going home to Southwest Philly.  He’ll kick it with coworkers— “We’re like family here,” he says. He’ll eat his lunch. With expectations to meet efficiency standards and cut lags on the route, he’ll miss his 15-minute lunch break and skip brief breaks allotted where he could take a smoke or go to the bathroom.

“If you miss your lunch break, they’ll correct the schedule,” Brown notes. But not other breaks, he says, “If you’re 10 minutes late, they’ll tell you, ‘Operator, run out your delay.’”

“We just think [scant breaks] are bad working conditions,” says Horwitz. Those bathroom breaks are tough, drivers maintain. A driver coming from North Philly to Center City wouldn’t be able to pull over in downtown traffic easily to relieve himself in two minutes. So, say the driver holds it until they can get back north. “When you get up there… people will hop on the bus before you can even [step out],” says Brown.

Brown wants guaranteed recovery time at the end of each trip. So does Cichonke.  “We need more time at the end of the line,” says Cichonke. “No breaks. That’s not all the time, but a lot of the time that’s how it is… You’re late, and they want you keep going and going and going.”

Does Cichonke drink coffee? “I just drive tired,” he replies. “I’m tired. I’m careful. But still.”

Picketing SEPTA workers in North Philadelphia.
Picketing SEPTA workers in North Philadelphia. Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

A recent study on safety of driver scheduling surveyed transit workers from six transit agencies in Florida, a state that has bus operator rest period minimums identical to Pennsylvania’s. As lead researcher Thobias Sando, a professor at the University of North Florida, pointed out, an eight-hour rest period isn’t solely for sleep. It’s also for commuting, getting settled at home, checking off personal errands and household accounting, or even attending a medical appointment. Split shift drivers experienced higher levels of sleep debt. (Napping at the workplace was the most popular activity chosen for the long break between split shifts in this Florida survey. Again, something not permitted at SEPTA’s depots, workers say.) Researchers recommended a mandatory 10-hour rest period, and smaller gaps between split shifts to shorten the length of the work day overall. In their statistics, operators who drove more than 10 hours were “overrepresented” in crash data.

Horwitz wouldn’t comment on what revised shift lengths they’d like to see exactly. “We’re concerned about that, and we’re discussing it,” he says.

“The health impact of sleepiness-induced fatigue extends well beyond the obvious increase in human factors accidents,” Harvard sleep medicine researchers wrote in a 2015 paper on transportation workers. “Accumulating data now implicate inadequate or short sleep duration as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity.” Sleep deprivation could also have adverse affects on irritability and mental health, as well as exacerbating the effects of other sleep disorders.

“Perceived or real concern about loss of employment tends to discourage those afflicted from seeking medical care,” the authors also wrote. “This results in large numbers of persons with untreated conditions working in potentially dangerous environments.”

A PennDOT rep told Billy Penn the department is seeking to revise its current workday regulations on transit workers, but did not elaborate.

Brown says the current scheduling and orders to drive on are a means to “manipulate the schedule to get the most out of operators,” he says. “They sacrifice safety for the schedule.”

Brown, 50, is a career operator. He’s worked for SEPTA for 29 years. He gets maybe five or six hours of sleep a night. He’s used to it. He thinks the job is tougher on older drivers, who might experience a heavier toll from sleep loss, and female drivers, who might have added difficulties juggling family responsibilities. Aside from breaks and rest periods, he’s highly concerned about his pension and sick pay.

How does he manage lack of sleep?

“I don’t know,” he says. “You do like everybody else. You just be tired.”

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for BillyPenn.com. She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...