HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Joshua Marbley starts his shift as a METROLift driver around 2:30 a.m., traveling through apartment complexes to pick up residents with disabilities who scheduled their trips in advance.
He's been an operator for more than six years and has several regulars who need dialysis at the medical center in the early morning hours.
"Some of the clients on our buses, they're in wheelchairs, some of them are visually impaired," Marbley said. "When that client steps foot on that bus, that client puts their seatbelt on, I put that bus in drive, that client puts their lives in my hands. So from that moment on, I got to be focused on that road."
Now, with nearly 100 fewer drivers during the pandemic, operators told ABC13 they're required to work six days a week, sometimes up to 12 hours a day, and are worried about fatigue as they drive around town to provide this essential service to Houstonians.
Our investigation found, in some cases, drivers are so tired they have to pull over and call a supervisor to take over their shift.
"It can be pretty draining," Marbley said.
13 Investigates first started asking METRO for documents on METROLift driver fatigue, hours and attendance issues in May after hearing from concerned drivers and passengers.
One driver we spoke with says she regularly works a 12-hour shift, starting at 5 a.m. In one case, she told 13 Investigates she didn't feel like she had enough time to go home and rest before her next shift 10 hours later.
"Everybody is different. You can work anywhere from six hours all the way to 12 [hours,]" said the driver, who asked we not share her name since she's still employed by First Transit. "They say we have to work six days, so we work six days."
METROLift transports thousands of riders every day in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The buses are owned by METRO but the agency contracts with First Transit, who hires drivers and sets their schedules.
First Transit said 12-hour shifts aren't common and that the company staggers the length of shifts. If a driver works 10 hours one day, they may only work five or six hours the next day.
METRO tells us it meets with First Transit weekly to discuss staffing levels and doesn't think driver fatigue is an issue.
"If an operator feels that they're fatigued, that they have a problem or that they don't think they can continue, it behooves that operator to work with their management and tell them, 'Listen, I can't keep going," said Andy Skabowski, executive vice president and chief operating officer at METRO.
In May, nearly 40 of the 289 METROLift operators in Houston had to quit their shift early, according to documents 13 Investigates obtained through an open records request. Drivers were late for work a total of 112 times and there were 77 instances where drivers just didn't show up for their shift that month.
First Transit said those numbers are not indicative of driver fatigue because there's a number of reasons drivers might be late or not show up.
The company said it addresses driver fatigue "aggressively" through check-ins with staff throughout the day. If a driver is tired and calls in, or has to leave mid-shift, First Transit said it won't be held against them.
But, that hasn't stopped some drivers from going to work tired on their mandatory sixth work day of the week, fearing they might get written up.
In a surveillance video we obtained from METRO through an open records request, one Lift driver employed by First Transit said she just got back from an out-of-town trip and didn't think she could take the day off.
"They only give us one day off, so I got to try and do everything in one day," the driver said in the surveillance video.
She goes on to say she made sure her supervisor knew she just got off a flight that kept getting delayed and was tired, but still went to work "because it was my mandatory day."
Our investigation found that one in four METROLift drivers, hired and trained by First Transit, left the company over the last year. A total of 140 drivers have left since the start of 2020.
METRO, which hired First Transit to run METROLift, said METROLift didn't fire any drivers during the pandemic, but that drivers who left were not replaced.
When it comes to driver fatigue, Skabowski said it's simply not an issue because although there are fewer drivers during the pandemic, there are also fewer riders. But, he admits First Transit is experiencing the same struggles as others in the transit industry who need to hire more drivers as businesses are back open and more people need transportation.
"It creates some overtime for operators that are on the job and they're asked to step up and provide some extra hours of service and typically it might be in the form of a day off, but that's First Transit and how they manage it," Skabowski said.
Regarding the six-day work weeks, Marbley shared a photo of a sign he said was posted on a bulletin board for Lift operators. It shows a crying face emoji and said, "due to continued high attendance, violations, resignations, and terminations, we will need to make mandatory days every week."
Another sign posted on the bulletin board that reminded drivers that "when you are on extra board, please be prepared to work up to 14 hours on your scheduled day."
First Transit told 13 Investigates the sign was put up in error and is looking into the issue.
The company said its drivers spend an average of 8.6 hours a day on the road. Drivers are supposed to work a maximum of 10 hours, plus the time needed to check their equipment before and after their shift.
First Transit's policy, negotiated with the drivers' union, is to give drivers at least eight hours off between shifts, but drivers we spoke within our investigation tell us when you're working long hours in back-to-back shifts, that's not enough time to go home and recharge.
"Unfortunately, that puts not only the driver behind the wheel of that vehicle, it don't only put just the passengers, it puts everybody around that driver at risk," Marbley said. "Most drivers like me, if they know they're tired, they're just going to call in and don't risk it. I feel better calling in and getting wrote up for it then (to) go out here and have a four-car accident."
Even with ridership down, First Transit admits it needs more drivers. The company increased pay for METROLift workers, is offering a $2,000 sign-on bonus for new drivers and encourages current drivers to speak up with concerns.
"First Transit is committed to our employees and operates in an open-door environment, which provides employees several ways to report any concerns or issues, including an anonymous 800 ethics and compliance line, direct access to their manager, or contacting onsite human resources," the company said.
Still, Marbley worries his colleagues are too fearful to talk to their supervisors about their concerns.
"If they were to come up to that facility and have a sit down, talk with every single operator, they can really start getting to the root cause of why the attendance is so high, why the turnover is so bad and why drivers do not want to work there," he said.
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