Life from the driver's seat
At 62-years-old, Frank Zuckerbrow is one of the most senior drivers with Veolia Transportation. After 33 years as a bus operator in the Valley, he's seen many changes in passenger attitudes and company policies.
By Molly Smith
PHOENIX - Frank Zuckerbrow gets up every morning at 1:15 a.m. He checks Facebook, watches the news, and, if it's not too cold outside, he'll water his plants.
As a union representative, he'll arrive for work 40 minutes early so he can answer questions the other operators have. At 4:36 a.m., he'll clock into work for a ten hour shift of driving Phoenix bus route 170 on Bell Road.
If there aren't any delays on the roads, he'll get a few minutes at the turn around point to rest and use the restroom before he's back on the bus for another hour and fifteen minute drive.
Frank, 62, has the fifth highest seniority of the approximately 645 bus operators employed by Veolia
Transportation, the transit company in charge of 33 Phoenix bus routes. This seniority means he gets first pick on which route he drives, what shifts he works, and what days he'd like off. After 33 years in the company, he's proud of his number five spot.
"That's all we have, is our seniority," Frank says. "It takes a while to get down to double-digits, and now I'm down to five. There's only four people ahead of me."
Born in Queens, N.Y., Frank wasn't always at the top of the chain. At 19-years-old and right out of high school, he took a job driving a gasoline truck through some of the rougher parts of the city.
"It was a scary job for my parents because I used to be out all night long... They always thought that I would get killed, that someone would shoot me while I was delivering the gasoline, but you become streetwise. You just know what to do."
In 1979, he followed his parents, brother and sister-in-law to Arizona, bringing his new wife, Roberta, with him. The two had met at a singles dance a year earlier.
When he arrived in the Valley, Frank applied for two jobs: one with the bus company, and one with Coca-Cola. Thinking the job as a bus operator would be more secure, he accepted their offer.
Thirty-three years later, Frank is still driving buses in the city of Phoenix, and he and Roberta are still together--though you might not know it by his lack of a wedding band.
"The year after we got married, the best man at my wedding came to visit us [in Arizona], and I wanted something special done to my ring... He was going to take it back to New York, but he called me and says, 'Frank, you're not going to believe what happened.' I said, 'I know, you've lost the ring, haven't you?' I never replaced it. I still feel horrible about it."
Today, Frank and Roberta live in the Valley with their two children, Brett, 27, and Marcey, 24. He's happy to share stories about his son's job at a credit union, or how Marcey works with her mother at a local dermatologist's office. Unabashedly, Frank says he thinks he is "one of the best fathers that a child could have."
Changes on the job
Frank works 50 hours a week, and says he's only taken one day off in his time with the company. Though he drives what Amalgamated Transit Union President Bob Bean says is one of the harder routes in Phoenix, due to the length of the route, Frank says it's about attitude.
"If you treat people the way you'd like to be treated, you'll have a good day. If I hassle you, you'll hassle me right back."
While he hasn't been assaulted on his route before, Frank says that like many other operators, he's been spit on by customers. Though for Frank it's not a common occurrence, when it does happen, company policy says he's not allowed to fight back. He says it's degrading for the operators, and that customers should remember they are human beings too.
"[Operators] are husbands. They're wives. They're mothers, they're fathers. It's a job, it's a livelihood, and most of the time they're trying to follow very difficult rules set out for them [by Veolia]. They have schedules that are almost unbearable. Sometimes they don't even have a place to use a restroom, because there are approved locations where we can go to the bathroom and they don't always have time."
However, Frank said he has noticed improvements in the 33 years he worked as a bus operator. He's glad not to be bothered by the bell line customers used to pull repeatedly to get his attention--now it will stop ringing after just one pull, which is all he says he needs to pay attention. Headphones are another change to be thankful for, as he remembers the days when people used to get on the bus with a big boombox over their shoulder.
Frank also remembers the days when kids used to get off the bus cursing and swearing at him, though that's changed too.
"They get off the bus now and it's a continual, 'Thank you driver!' They used to yell at me and make me feel like two cents, and now they like me."
While changes in passenger attitudes have been for the better, Frank believes some company policies have changed for the worse. Among other changes, Veolia has eliminated courtesy rides if a passenger doesn't have the full fare, and banned companion animals on buses. These changes have Frank concerned that assaults could be on the rise.
"It's going to be another policy that will make us look like bad people, but that's the new law."
Frank has become a regular face on the Bell Road route, as one of the perks of his seniority is the choice to drive the same route everyday. He's one of a handful of operators to have driven over two million miles safely, and by his estimate he's closer to three million now. Never taking a sick day in his 33 years built him up a store of 105 sick days, which upon retirement would be paid back to him.
However, when Veolia changed their contract with the city last July, Frank says the company took away some of his sick days in what he says was a bid to save money. The union is still in negotiation with Veolia over their new contract with the drivers, but for the time being, sick days will remain capped at 35 days, with drivers now accruing only half a sick day every month instead of one whole day.
"Now if you retire the first 35 days will be taken," Frank said. "For coming to work day in and day out, one of the things people look forward to is cashing out their sick days. Now they are not going to give me the first 35."
Frank says morale has been low among the operators since Veolia took over the personnel management contract from the city in June 2010. For one, drivers have had their inspection time in the morning cut down, and many of them feel they can't ensure the safety of their bus now.
"We're doing so much more now, we have so many more things to check. From the time that we swipe our card to the time that they want you out of the gate, they want it done in 15 minutes. You really can't do everything that you should do in order to ensure safety... Can I do my job properly before I pull out in the morning? The answer is no, I can't. They don't give us the tools or the time."
Frank says that in addition to not providing the proper tools, the general attitude of the management has changed.
"Since the new management took over, it's like day and night. The old management would recognize you for your birthday, they would have an annual company supervisors event, but now it's like us against them. There's no more niceness, it's gone."
Frank hopes to see some changes in the way that operators are treated. He says many drivers would like to see their old manager back; he left for Las Vegas last year, but that branch of Veolia has since closed.
Whether or not the management style changes, Frank will be with the company for several more years until retirement. At that point, he'll probably stay in the Valley. He says travel plans to other parts of the world don't cross his mind often.
"I think that if I was really able to afford it, maybe I'd go to Greece or Israel. But now I'm just content. I don't have a lot of desires."
Frank does have one wish though. He'd love to have an American Bulldog to walk when he wakes up for his 1 a.m. routine.
Frank's route is a 20 mile stretch along Bell Road from the east to the west side of the Valley. It takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes to make a round trip. He will drive at least 260 miles in every ten hour shift.
Route 170 - Bell in a larger map