Bus drivers have claimed they were forced to work with Covid during the pandemic as they battle for recognition, lost pay and improved conditions.
Throughout England’s lockdowns, transport staff have continued to operate as normal, often at risk to themselves. But despite their efforts, they claim they’ve struggled with poor Covid protection, cuts to pay, unsafe working practices and an ongoing lack of toilet facilities available for them to use.
Data from the Office for National Statistics in 2020 revealed bus drivers were one of 17 specific occupations with the highest Covid death rates among men.
James Rossi, who has been a driver for more than 11 years and works in north London, believes he caught the virus in March. He asked about sick pay at the time and claims he was told they were still ‘working on it’.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘I was exhausted. I think it was the third week, I had heavy breathing at night and my lungs felt heavy. That’s how I knew I had it.
‘That period, I think it was five weeks, I isolated myself as much as possible. But you can’t have five weeks with no pay. There are bills that still have to be paid.
‘After I got over the virus they told me, good news, we’ve arranged the sick pay. I was thinking, that’s a bit late for us lot isn’t it. Even if we had had the time off, the money wouldn’t have been backdated.
‘I found out later around 20 or 30 other drivers were in similar situations, where they also ended up working through it.’
Alex Flynn*, who drives buses in North West England, told Metro.co.uk that his colleagues who suffered Covid symptoms didn’t isolate unless until they received a positive test result.
He said: ‘If you went off for a test you were supposed to isolate until you’d had the results back, but then you wouldn’t get paid for those days. If you test negative, you would have lost those two days essentially.
‘It didn’t help anyone who wanted to do the right thing and get tested. We had one incident of a driver coming into work after his test and later finding he was positive.’
Bus drivers are often incentivised to work weekends and rest days to boost their salaries, with both James and Alex stating that they have around two to five days off a month.
However, the pandemic saw some operators impose Sunday schedules on drivers while paying lower weekday rates, resulting in workers losing as much as 25% of their pay. This meant those affected earned less than those on furlough.
James believes he has lost around £2,500 due to the pandemic, while Ian Cowan*, a driver in West Yorkshire, told Metro.co.uk he had been left £1,800 out of pocket so-far.
Drivers from at least four bus companies are now threatening strike action this year, over lost pay and other issues, such as remote sign on and a lack of toilet facilities available to staff.
Remote sign on sees drivers meet their buses outside of the garage along their route, meaning they start their shifts without rest areas, bathrooms, or canteen space. They are also put at an increased risk of Covid-19 by travelling to and from the remote locations.
Alex said there are very few terminuses on his routes where he is able to use a bathroom. He went on: ‘For a while we had nowhere to go to the toilet in Liverpool. We had nowhere to wash our hands or anything.
‘The problem is the health and safety structures for bus drivers were never there before. They didn’t take it seriously pre-Covid – and now they’re being found wanting.’
Often public toilets inside a station are the only facilities available to bus drivers. James said these can sometimes be unnecessarily out of use.
The problem is the health and safety structures for bus drivers were never there before. They didn’t take it seriously pre-Covid – and now they’re being found wanting.
He said: ‘I recently tried to use a station bathroom and both the men’s and women’s were locked due to a toilet being blocked in the women’s. I asked the station controller and he said it was because the women might go into the men’s.
‘It’s common practice in London. They’ve been doing it for years. They shut them all while they call an engineer out to solve an issue in one cubicle.’
James is now one of many drivers calling for public transport staff to receive better conditions and and be permanently recognised by the government as skilled and key workers once the pandemic ends.
He noted that members of the public had become more appreciative of drivers during England’s first lockdown – but by December people were back to being ‘abusive and aggressive’ again.
James said: ‘If the buses went down, could the tubes manage it? No they couldn’t. But if the tube goes down, the bus drivers always step up and keep the service going.
‘We interact with passengers daily, and we are constantly dealing with situations. You might have a kid out of control screaming, you’ll have to step out the cab and politely ask them to calm down.
‘With Covid, we’re not allowed to enforce face masks, but it’s up to me to decide when my bus is becoming so full it’s unsafe. I might also pull over until someone abusive gets off. We have a lot of responsibility and we are key workers.’
Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said the union takes allegations, such as those over sick pay, ‘very seriously’. He went on: ‘The onus is on the bus companies’ managements, as an responsible employer, to look after the safety and welfare of bus drivers, whether it is provision of adequate toilet facilities or proper levels of sick pay, during this continuing pandemic.’
He added: ‘Unite has been lobbying the government and the employers for some time to provide a proper national network of toilet facilities as it is unrealistic to expect bus drivers to have a long shift without adequate toilet breaks.
‘We are also currently balloting a number of our London bus drivers for industrial action over the issue of remote sign-ins.
‘It is paramount that bus drivers, who have to self-isolate because of coronavirus, should not lose out when it comes to wages. Employees, who are sick, should not feel pressured to come to work because of financial considerations – that is not in the interests of public health at this time of national emergency.’
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: ‘We’re hugely grateful to our frontline bus drivers and staff across the country who are doing an amazing job to keep bus and coach services running to enable essential journeys, such as those made by NHS staff and other key workers.
‘It is the responsibility of transport operators to ensure the welfare of their employees, and the Department will continue to engage with operators and representatives to ensure driver welfare is a priority.’
*Names have been changed.
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