August 13, 2006
Economy puts them in the driver's seat
Seattle Times business reporter
THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
After 26 years of driving school buses, Rebecca Lopes, 52, is a pro. The Laidlaw employee trains new drivers and has even gotten to know the families of the children on her routes.
"If you look at my refrigerator, all my kids' pictures are on there," Lopes said.
The Rebecca Lopes of 26 years ago might not have imagined such success. She said she got lost on her first day on the job.
"A street was closed, and I had no idea how to get back," she said. "Back then, we didn't have radios. One kid was spitting out the window ... others were fighting."
A typical workday for Lopes is now much less unpredictable.
And bus drivers like her are in demand, especially now as yellow-bus companies prepare for the coming school year. Laidlaw and First Student, which provide bus service for Seattle Public Schools, are hiring. So is Metro Transit.
Want to drive a bus?
If you're interested in a job driving a bus, here are some local contacts.
Metro Transit: www.metrokc.gov/kcdot/jobs/ptto or 206-684-1024 and
First Student: 206-763-2222
What's it like to be a school-bus driver? During the school year, Lopes starts work at 7 a.m. when she checks out the bus, then starts on her route, picking kids up. She gets breaks between routes every few hours and usually finishes her day at 4 p.m.
School-bus drivers aren't paid during their breaks and usually get about six hours of work a day, though some can drive up to 10 hours each day. Lopes said most drivers return home, go on walks, exercise, take classes or nap during their breaks. Because school-bus drivers usually get summers off, they are classified as part-time workers, but they work from 30 to 50 hours a week during the school year.
The pay ranges from $13 to $16 an hour, and drivers must be 21 and older with clean driving records to qualify.
Classroom and behind-the-wheel training leads to a commercial driver's license, which is required for the job.
Being a good school-bus driver means letting the kids know who's boss.
"If you let your guard down, those kids will walk all over you," said Lopes. "You got some hardheads, but most of the time you can work them. They just like to be treated like people, too."
Besides keeping the kids well-behaved, challenges also include dealing with traffic and driving a large vehicle.
Bus drivers sometimes form lasting impressions on their passengers.
Recently, a young man stopped Lopes while she was walking near the University of Washington. It turned out that Lopes had driven the 19-year-old when he was in fourth and fifth grades.
"It was the most overwhelming feeling," Lopes said. "Ten years later, he still remembered me."
"It's like a family"
Bus drivers for Metro Transit may not deal with children and their families as much as school-bus drivers, but they have a family of their own.
Metro bus drivers congregate during breaks at the "bullpen" in downtown Seattle's Central base, one of seven in the area. They love to crack jokes, and laughter is often heard amid the lighthearted banter.
The Central base offers an exercise room, pool tables, arcade games and a television. Shelves hold more than 200 bus schedules and posters on the wall impart driving tips. One features a driver about to slam his foot down on a brake with a feather on top. It says, "Avoid passenger falls, feather your brakes."
Though bus drivers do their work independently, many enjoy coming to the bullpen for the latest gossip and for the intimate environment.
"It's like a family," said Ray Campbell, a bus driver and union official.
John Fabre, who has been a Metro driver for 36 years, is all too familiar with the familylike atmosphere.
"They greet me with 'You ain't retired yet?' " he said. "They do it in fun."
Earlier this year, Fabre, 60, was named the 2005 Operator of the Year.
That day, he had been told that he was going to a meeting. Fellow drivers reminded him about it over the radio.
Instead, he opened a door to find a room full of people applauding and congratulating him.
The guests included a former chief who came from Idaho and Fabre's son, who traveled from Rhode Island. Fabre said a friend told him that his eyes were "glassin' up." "But I kept my smile," Fabre said with a grin.
Fabre is one of more than 2,600 Metro bus drivers employed by King County.
Metro drivers start out earning about $17 an hour. The average wage is around $22 an hour.
Valarie Gallegos, a 42-year-old part-time Metro driver, said she chose the job because of the good pay.
Gallegos said she was making the same amount working part-time as a bus driver as she would working full-time elsewhere.
Gallegos, who also works as a private caregiver, is one of many part-time bus drivers who hold a second job. Often, the part-timers are also writers, artists, students, small-business owners and teachers.
Part-time workers can receive medical benefits for a relatively low cost, according to Jim O'Rourke, Metro's transit operations manager. When an employee works full time, the employee and his or her family receives full benefit coverage.
Will train to drive bus
To become a bus driver, you need to be a good driver, but no previous bus-driving experience is needed.
"We're not necessarily looking for skill in manipulating heavy equipment," said O'Rourke. "We can teach people to drive a larger vehicle."
Qualifications for the job include having a good driving record with no major moving violations and no license suspensions or revocations, being at least 21 years old and holding a Washington state driver's license.
O'Rourke said there is a high demand for bus drivers since fewer people apply for the jobs when the local economy is doing well, as it is now.
"We're seeing the number of people walking through the door decline."
Metro hires about 18 part-time drivers every two weeks. Full-time drivers are never hired from outside the company, only promoted from the part-time ranks.
Schedules can be irregular. Part-time drivers can work from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. or between 2 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. They are guaranteed 2 ½ hours of work a day. Being on time is paramount.
Fabre said a lot has changed since he first became a bus driver. He said bus drivers didn't have power steering, power brakes, air conditioning and "good seats" then.
"You had to work when I came in," Fabre joked.
Dealing with heavy traffic and passengers can also be challenging.
But Fabre said drivers need to take the initiative to keep their passengers happy.
"If you respect your passengers, they'll respect you," he said. "Sometimes, drivers look the other way. ... I greet my passengers."
Kevin Haptonstall, a 28-year-old driver, agreed.
"Drivers set their own mood on the bus," he said. "I greet every single person and say goodbye. ... I think people need it."
Fabre said that not everybody has the skills to be a bus driver.
"Everybody thinks you just sit there and drive," he said. "There's more to it."
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