Los Angeles Local Opposes Driver Safety Reform

Despite a series of incidents involving L.A. city truck drivers, including a fatal accident that last month resulted in a record $19-million settlement,  Service Employees Int’l Union Local 347 is opposing city officials’ calls for a review of driver safety and concerns that the city isn’t doing enough to protect the public. Of the 2,600 city truck drivers, 113 have been allowed to operate the vehicles in the last three years even though they had failed drug tests or lost the right to drive their personal vehicles. The issue of fatigue caused by significant amounts of overtime has also been raised. Investigators said fatigue appeared to be a factor in the fatal truck accident that resulted in the $19-million payout.

In calling for a review of city policies and practices, City Councilman Joel Wach 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.

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.” 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.

“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.”

Local 347 boss, Julie Butcher, said the practice of giving drivers second and third chances is humane. “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 Cal. Dep’t of Transportation automatically fires drivers after a second positive drug test, and the L.A. Unified School Dist. fires drivers after one positive test. Caltrans personnel officer Dave Brubaker and union director Ron Glick, who represents 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.” [L.A. Times 2/24/00]