Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Leisure, work, money, and a whole lot of exhausted Metro workers

November 18, 2011 - 11:50 AM
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(Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)

Recent Metro news is all about work hours and exhaustion and how WMATA employees have been known to, at times, work upwards of 16 hours in a row despite a 16-hour cap. I first read the report on the issue last week, which the WMATA Board discussed yesterday. WMATA now hopes to establish a 14-hour cap. The transit agency conducted a 28-day study and looked at survey results and many other facets that raise red flags about fatigue in sensitive positions.

How to address this? These negotiations and recognitions strike me as inevitable and nothing surprising, given the transit agency's history. The steps forward seem wise and fitting with the review it has attempted in recent years. These discussions remind me of MetroAccess bus drivers, who protested against contractor MV Transportation's 13-hour schedules earlier this fall. But given the underlying union issues and nebulous nature of overtime in the overall WMATA system, I would suggest that this  situation is a little more complicated.

What truly stands out to me is the notion of so many workers lost in the WMATA system for so many hours. That's a lot of time for anyone to be underground and working, whether they elect to do so or are compelled to. I turned to the dead thinker and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell's thoughts in 1932's "In Praise of Idleness" for an understanding of what labor, leisure, and institutional realities mean for WMATA workers in this case:

"If you ask [the worker] what he thinks is the best part of his life," Russell notes,

he is not likely to say, 'I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel I am fulfilling man's noblest task and because I like to think how much man can transform this planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest which I have to fill in as best as I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.' I have never heard working men say this sort of thing. They consider work as it should be considered: a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.

Russell's words speak to the many motivations and realities that underscore thousands of men and women in yellow vests deep under the earth here in Washington, D.C. What motivates the average worker? What motivates the institution that employs them? How does this affect the riders who both serve during the long hours? Metro's new cap on hours will help address problems, such as the occasional sleeping station manager and broader safety concerns for the D.C. Metro ridership and WMATA employees, that arise amid all these questions.

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