Transit union hires Democratic lobbying firm to help end bus-driver fatigue

A major transit union has hired a well-connected Democratic lobbying firm to help with its push for bus drivers' overtime pay.

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has hired the Ickes & Enright Group to lobby on the highway bill as well as on legislation that would remove an overtime pay exemption for intercity bus drivers. The firm began working for the union on Jan. 1, according to lobbying disclosure records, on what has become a huge issue for bus operators and companies: driver fatigue.  

Larry Hanley, ATU's president, told The Hill that offering overtime pay to drivers will allow them to rest when off the road and not have to work a second job to make ends meet. 

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"The dirty little secret that the industry is trying to hide here is that drivers' wages have been driven down so low that to make ends meet they have to take a second job or work up to 100 hours a week," Hanley said. "We think it's criminal that the federal government is turning a blind eye as bus drivers and bus riders are dying because of the bad federal labor policy."

Lobbying for the union, which has 190,000 members in the United States and Canada, is Harold Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Janice Enright, a former senior aide to Ickes in the Clinton White House, according to lobbying disclosure records.

The ATU president said a recent series of bus crashes can be traced back to drivers being exhausted on the job.


"We are deadly serious about a deadly serious problem," Hanley said. "And Harold is a deadly serious lobbyist."

"I have known Larry for a long time and we're interested in transportation," Ickes said. "Driver fatigue is really a big issue. Without the overtime, there's no incentive to have reasonable hours for drivers and that's a dangerous situation."  

In December last year, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the Driver Fatigue Prevention Act, which has ATU’s support. The bill would end the overtime pay exemption for bus drivers in what’s called the “over-the-road” bus industry — typically hours-long bus routes run by Greyhound, Peter Pan Bus Lines and other bus companies.

The bus industry is pushing back against the bill.

“There's no evidence that repealing overtime exemptions from [the Fair Labor Standards Act] for bus drivers will improve safety. … Obviously, carriers are going to do everything they can to limit their drivers to the 40 hours,” said Ted Knappen, a lobbyist for Greyhound. “All of that will go to higher passenger fares, which we can't afford and our passengers can't afford. And all for no apparent safety benefit.”

“I think the bill has been mischaracterized. It would do more to reduce pay and put drivers out of work than anything else,” said Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association.

Pantuso said there should be better federal and state enforcement of existing safety regulations — including how long drivers can drive, known as hours of service. Bus companies do work to insure that their drivers are well-rested while illegal carriers are the ones ignoring those and other rules, according to the trade group leader.

“We think the program that is in place has worked for decades. The industry has the best safety record of all surface transportation modes,” Pantuso said.

Nevertheless, ATU has been pushing for a driver fatigue fix since 2010 and will continue to do so. Hanley would like to see Schumer’s legislation attached to the surface transportation reauthorization bill but if unsuccessful, the union leader will look for other opportunities.

“Whether or not we can get it done in the highway bill, we will continue to work to get it done,” Hanley said.

Congress has taken other actions to address bus safety, and two different measures could soon become law.

The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, offered by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), was passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee and has been attached to the Senate version of the surface transportation reauthorization bill.

Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) bill, the Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety Act, was passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has been added to the House version of the highway bill.

The two bills differ as the Senate bill would require quicker changes to bus safety regulations, while the House bill will give the federal government more time to implement new safety standards.

“The main difference between the House and the Senate bill is that Shuster's legislation does not mandate safety improvements but requires an empirical scientific study from which safety improvements can be recommended,” said Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesman for Shuster. 

Lauren Kulik, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the House bill “is just needless delay for commonsense safety standards.”

The bus industry’s support is split between the two pieces of legislation.

Knappen, the lobbyist for Greyhound, said the Senate bill “is a good approach and we support it.”

The Senate bill would have seat belts for each bus seat and reinforce the windows and roofs of buses to better protect passengers during accidents.

“We are already doing a lot of that,” Knappen said.

Pantuso of the American Bus Association said both bills will lead to bus safety but the House bill is the better approach.

“We think the Shuster bill is just the better way to get that end goal,” Pantuso said. “We believe the Senate bill is too prescriptive and there's not enough time to implement the changes.”

He noted the House bill also includes tax credits and federal grants that would help small bus companies retrofit their vehicles.

ATU supports safety improvements being made to buses. The best way to improve bus safety though is to reduce driver fatigue, according to Hanley. He cited a study by the union that showed seatbelts did little to save passengers’ lives.

“This is misdirection,” Hanley said. “No one wants to deal with the underlying fact that drivers are falling asleep at the wheel and killing people.”