Muni driver Reginald Reese speaks with reporters alongside other drivers who are advocating for a wage increase because they cannot afford to live near The City and often sleep in their cars after their shifts. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Many Muni drivers sleeping in their cars due to long commutes

Operators priced out of San Francisco argue for better wages, safe spaces to rest

San Leandro. Antioch. Hayward. Stockton.

San Francisco’s Muni operators hail from cities across the Bay Area, in part due to an exploding housing market that’s driven them farther and farther from The City.

And with that distance comes long commutes and sleep deprivation.

To avoid long hours on the road, Muni operators are increasingly sleeping in their cars on San Francisco streets or in city-operated garages, according to drivers and union officials.

Six Muni operators who consistently sleep in their cars while working for Muni spoke to reporters on Monday, alongside representatives of their union, the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. They were hoping to sound the alarm on the link between low pay, distance to work and lack of sleep.

“There have been countless times when I finish a shift and have to sleep in [my] car,” said Alex Sobolev, a Muni operator.

Originally from San Francisco and a Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School alum, Sobolev found himself priced out to San Leandro, a roughly hour-long commute. And while that may not be a lot for someone working in an office job, the Muni operators said that after hours on the road for work, they find themselves feeling unsafe behind the wheel headed home.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency employs some 2,000 Muni operators, 42 percent of whom live in San Francisco, according to the agency. That number is actually up from five years ago when only roughly 39 percent of Muni operators were San Franciscans.

TWU-Local 250-A President Roger Marenco said his union members could live closer to San Francisco with a pay raise, and at the least should benefit from a city-provided place to sleep if they’re too exhausted to drive home, or a Muni-run shuttle for city employees — like a Google Bus, but for the public sector.

Marenco is in contract negotiation with the SFMTA over Muni operators pay, which began in late January. He isn’t shy about highlighting his operators’ woes as another reason The City should increase pay for Muni operators. The SFMTA said they have plans to build facilities for operator rest in their downtime.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said it “wouldn’t be appropriate to negotiate through the press,” but said Muni provides “well-paying jobs” that are second-highest paid in the nation, behind drivers in Boston, Massachusetts. But previous complaints haven’t necessarily centered on how much money drivers make, but how quickly they make it.

In the last contract, operators saw the time it takes to earn full pay go from 18 months to nearly five years, which a city analysis found contributed to operators leaving the agency in droves.

Multiple operators the San Francisco Examiner spoke to independently of the union also said they sleep in their cars due to living far from Muni, and feared their driving would be impaired if they commuted home daily.

Sobolev said he got into a close call on the 38-Geary when he was tired at the wheel.

“I was just exhausted,” he said while driving the 38 in the outer-avenues. “At the last second, a lady comes out of nowhere on my left” on a bicycle.

“I flinched,” he said. “It was a close call,” and he almost ran her down.

City data shows collisions on the SFMTA were on a five-year high from 2012 to 2017, but last year began to trend downwards and are now meeting San Francisco’s mandated target of 6.4 collisions per 100,000 miles. The agency attributes the drop in crashes to “red carpet” transit-only lanes on Geary Street, Mission Street, and elsewhere, which allow buses to roll without interacting with private autos.

Still, even if safety is not a concern, Muni operators say the long commutes lead to burnout.

Tamaya Wellington, who lives in Tracy, said she is on the verge of quitting Muni for exactly that reason. She sleeps in her car mostly on weekends, because on weekdays she has to bring her three children to school. She finds it exhausting, and often only nets about four hours of sleep. Safety rules require operators to get eight hours of sleep before their shifts.

But when she sleeps in her car at night, she feels deeply unsafe.

“You wake up and somebody’s watching you,” she said.

Reginald Reese, a third-generation Muni operator whose mother, uncle and grandfather all worked for Muni, said police have woken him while he slept in his car.

Sometimes he spends all week away from his four children and wife, sleeping in his car near a Muni bus yard instead of driving back home to Hayward.

“You get a call on your shift,” he said, “Your kid lost a tooth and you’re crying because you haven’t seen them in a week.”

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Muni driver Alex Sobolev is part of a group of drivers who are advocating for a wage increase because they cannot afford to live near The City and often sleep in their cars. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni driver Reginald Reese pauses while talking about how his kids miss him and get angry with him because he’s away working so much. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

From left: Muni drivers Reginald Reese, Jesus Cendejas and Alex Sobolev stand for a photo alongside Muni Union President Roger Marenco on Monday, April 1, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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