Driving Buses to Casinos, With Long Hours and Little Rest
Simon Lee, whose aunt and uncle died in the Bronx bus crash, is a driver who makes the same run to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. He used the modest lounge the casino provides for drivers.
Far from the plush gambling rooms of the Mohegan Sun casino is a lounge that few gamblers will ever see.
The space is small, drab and windowless, sparsely furnished with snack machines and worn khaki chairs, a far cry from cocktail waitresses and gleaming slot machines.
Yet for the dozens of chartered bus drivers who trek daily to the casino in Uncasville, Conn., the lounge offers rare relief on a tedious, exhausting journey that can last 12 hours or more. And those assigned the Mohegan Sun route count themselves lucky — they say that most casinos offer drivers no place to rest at all.
The low-cost tour-bus industry, where drivers often work long hours for little pay, has come under renewed scrutiny since a crash in the Bronx on Saturday killed 15 passengers on a return trip from Mohegan Sun.
The trip was typical of many in the industry, a motley collection of small outlets that operate largely out of sight of government regulators. Drivers, tour operators and watchdog groups say that many employees receive no benefits, work long hours and are poorly compensated. Federal rules that restrict drivers’ hours are only sporadically enforced, and some drivers say they have felt pressure to take long-haul trips that often stretch beyond the legal limit.
The cause of the weekend crash still had not been determined as of Wednesday, but much of the focus has turned to the driver, Ophadell Williams. State and federal officials are examining his actions in the minutes and hours before the accident; Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered an inquiry into how Mr. Williams, who had driving violations and a criminal record, was allowed to become a commercial bus driver.
When other drivers heard about the crash on Saturday, many said they immediately wondered if fatigue had played a role.
“The first thing that pops into my mind was, ‘How many hours was he working?’ ” said Brian Bailey, 53, a driver for Brush Hill Tours in Boston. “A lot of these drivers, we’re driving down the road, we wave to the other guy. We’re all in the same business. It affects us all the same way; it makes us more aware.”
At Foxwoods, another Connecticut casino, and at some Atlantic City casinos, drivers are confined to charter bus parking lots, typically several miles from the casino, and they frequently take naps on buses. The casinos usually provide drivers with a $15 food voucher and a shuttle bus to the local food court; hotel rooms are not offered.
Mr. Bailey was sitting in his bus just inside the entrance to Foxwoods about 9 p.m. on Monday. He said his company encouraged drivers to eat, sleep and “rest, relax so you’re not stressed out.” Some drivers, he conceded, take the opportunity to gamble. “We have drivers who will spend their whole time in there pulling handles,” he said.
In his downtime, Mr. Bailey said, he often watches videotaped episodes of “General Hospital” and grabs food. “There’s nothing worse than being tired while you’re driving,” he said. “People don’t realize, you start dozing off, it’s not a good thing. Especially when you’ve got everybody’s life in your hands.”
Federal guidelines limit passenger-bus drivers to 10 hours behind the wheel, within a 15-hour work day, and bus carriers face a fine if violations are discovered. But the hours, recorded in a handwritten logbook, are easily falsified, and even outstanding violations are often ignored: World Wide Travel, the operator whose bus crashed in the Bronx, had been cited several times by regulators for problems with its logs.
At Foxwoods on Monday, a driver for World Wide Travel was preparing for a nap in his bus’s front passenger row. The driver had arranged a blanket and several small pillows atop a knapsack; later, he opened an overhead compartment to reveal a stash of blankets. “You see my bed?” he said with a smile.
The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his company had instructed drivers not to talk to the news media, said he planned to sleep for 90 minutes. He still had five hours until he had to start his return trip to Flushing, Queens. He had already used a casino-issued meal coupon to buy a chicken-and-rice dinner.
“It’s an easy job; it’s not too bad,” the driver said. “Other charters, you’re going to Washington, D.C., or Boston. This one is easy, only two and a half hours.” He said he earned $150 a day, payable by check, and worked about five shifts a week. The company provides gas money.
Tour-bus drivers say they come to the job through a variety of channels. Many drove school buses or worked for public transit agencies, where they often earned higher salaries. Mr. Bailey said he led tours for college students, ski trips, Cape Cod tours — even, once, the Boston Red Sox. Some are retired, with a government pension, and looking for extra pay.
Federal law is nearly silent on qualifications for the job: for the most part, anyone with a state-issued commercial driver’s license is eligible. Carriers are expected to obtain medical certificates from their drivers and occasionally test for drug and alcohol use; a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the industry’s regulator, said that the responsibility for administering those tests fell to the business, not the state, and that violators could face fines.
Some skeptics wonder if discount bus companies, which are rarely unionized and have only a few employees, end up with castoffs from more reputable places.
“These small companies that want to make a quick buck, they take anyone they can get,” said Larry Hanley, president of Amalgamated Transit Union International, which represents thousands of drivers.
Tour buses, Mr. Hanley said, are “the industry of last resort.”
Some in the industry complain that the rise of discount buses in the last decade has forced more established carriers, like Greyhound, to lower wages. Tight margins mean that drivers end up with salaries often as low as around $15 an hour.
At the Mohegan Sun lounge on Tuesday, Simon Lee, 63, a driver on a route from Flushing, was watching a Chinese-language film on his laptop. He said he was grateful that the casino provided the space.
On his bus, Mr. Lee said, “in the wintertime, it’s too cold, and in the summertime, it’s too hot.”
“It gets over 100 inside the bus in the summer,” he continued. “You cannot stay up there.”
Mr. Lee said, with a laugh, that he would not mind if the lounge installed a StairMaster for exercise. But he turned serious when asked about the weekend crash. His aunt and uncle, May Lin Wong and Ock Thling Wong, were among the passengers killed.
“I basically grew up with them in Hong Kong,” Mr. Lee said. “I keep telling myself every day now, be more alert, be more careful, because of my aunt and uncle, what happened to them.”