By Don McIntosh
Portlander Teressa Stevens was fired Aug. 21 from her job as a driver for TriMet LIFT — for urinating in a parking lot.
Drivers of all kinds will be able to relate to her predicament. Stevens says on June 18 she was driving her TriMet LIFT wheelchair-assisted minibus. She was trying to find the Tigard church where she was supposed to pick up her next disabled passenger when she felt an urgent need to urinate. Stevens says she had no money in her pocket for a customers-only restroom at a nearby Burger King. Desperate, she pulled into the empty parking lot of a corporate office park, got out, and squatted next to her bus. At 4 p.m. on a Sunday, she didn’t think there would be witnesses.
But an office worker was watching from inside, took a picture with her smartphone, texted it to her boss, and posted it to Facebook. Her boss called the property manager to complain. The property manager called TriMet to complain. And TriMet called First Transit, Inc., the outside contractor that runs TriMet LIFT service.
Two days later, Stevens’ manager called her into the office to confront her. She admitted what she’d done. He suspended her. It turned out to be her last day of work.
On June 21, KOIN 6 TV determined that this vitally important story was worth a segment on the nightly news, and sent reporter Lisa Balick to the Scholls Business Center parking lot where Stevens had urinated three days previously. The TV news segment opened with the Facebook photo, driver’s face blurred, and left viewers the impression that a male driver had defecated in the parking lot. Balick and TV anchor Jeff Gianola told the story from the perspective of the outraged office worker, who presumably has access to a workplace restroom. They expressed no sympathy for the unnamed driver.
Stevens’ union, however, defended her. An officer of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 represented her in a disciplinary hearing. Labor’s Community Service Agency, a union-sponsored charity for union members in hardship, helped pay her rent. And Local 757’s communication department gave Stevens the chance to tell her side of the story in a video the union published on YouTube July 28.
After two paycheck-free months, Stevens was formally terminated on Aug. 21.
“You urinated on the ground next to your vehicle,” First Transit said in her termination letter. That’s “a Class 1 infraction” the letter explained — “illegal, immoral or indecent behavior.”
Local 757 has filed a grievance protesting the termination. Because it’s a human rights issue, says Local 757 vice president Jon Hunt, Stevens’ fellow union members may be willing to take her case all the way to binding arbitration.
“What’s the message to this group: Go in your pants or you’re going to be terminated?” Hunt asked.
Taking bathroom breaks is a perennial challenge for professional drivers of all kinds. It’s a problem for TriMet bus operators, Hunt says, and even more so for TriMet LIFT drivers, who may not be able to leave vulnerable passengers unattended. Even as Local 757 is fighting to get Stevens’ job back, one of her co-workers is facing termination after more than 15 years of work at TriMet LIFT — for urinating in a bottle on or next to a bus.
Stevens’ grievance is against First Transit, but Hunt is convinced First Transit was told by TriMet to fire Stevens. Even as it was terminating her from TriMet LIFT, First Transit offered her a position in its school bus division.
Stevens declined the offer. She loved helping disabled individuals get around, and after two and a half years, she’d been earning $17.77 an hour plus benefits, and working up to 60 hours a week.
Like Hunt, Stevens thinks she was fired because she embarrassed TriMet.
“You think they were embarrassed?” Stevens told the Labor Press. “How do you think I felt?”
TriMet spokesperson Tia York wouldn’t say whether a TriMet manager directed that Stevens be fired, but explained agency policy in an emailed statement: “LIFT operators are allowed to take comfort breaks outside regular break times, but for safety and security reasons, they are required to first contact dispatch. If the operator finds herself in an unfamiliar area, dispatch will guide her to a location where she can utilize the restroom at no cost. The operator in this situation did not contact dispatch to request a comfort break before stopping her vehicle and relieving herself in a parking lot.”
[CLARIFICATION: This story’s headline was previously “TriMet Lift fires a driver for answering the call of nature,” but was changed for accuracy’s sake. TriMet Lift is the program, but First Transit is the employer, and therefore it was First Transit that fired the driver, as the article makes clear.]
IN HER OWN WORDS: Teress Stevens tells what happened in this video posted by the union: