protesters stand in a line with signs promoting better working conditions for CTA
CTA workers and supporters attend a 2022 protest. Credit: Courtesy Chicago Transit Justice Coalition

Around 3:30 AM, Aundra Thompson, 57, wakes to his phone’s alarm clock. Outside, darkness cloaks the sleepy Forest Park community in which he resides. Unlike some Chicagoans, Thompson doesn’t have the luxury of repeatedly hitting the snooze button; local bus riders depend on his timeliness. Plus, being even slightly late has consequences. 

Reinvigorated by a hot cup of coffee from a local food truck, Thompson begins his first task: carefully inspecting every facet of the multi-wheeled bus, ensuring not only the behemoth’s mechanical soundness but the comfort of his upcoming passengers. Perhaps most importantly, before starting the bus, he searches its underbelly for unhoused people who might’ve fallen asleep there.

Since the 1980s, Thompson has held various positions within the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), but lately, he’s become increasingly disillusioned. Deteriorating working conditions affect his physical and mental health, he said, and he frequently works overtime just to make ends meet.

Currently, the agency faces a formidable challenge to eliminate obstacles fueled by the pandemic, which have slowly eroded its dependability. Daily delays continue to frustrate and demoralize riders, while “ghost” buses and trains exacerbate perceptions of incompetence and unreliability. As attention focuses heavily on the rider experience, the concurrent struggle of the agency’s most vital organ—its workers—often slips into the shadows. 

Data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confirms that 160 CTA employees had resigned this year as of April 20, including 11 who were out on temporary medical disability. Seventy-one were bus operators. As reported by Block Club Chicago, the agency has implemented $1,000 signing bonuses and a Second Chance Program to try and boost hiring. Yet an April WBEZ analysis found that the CTA was still losing more employees than it was hiring. A FOIA request for previous resignation numbers is pending. 

Thompson and four colleagues discussed some key factors contributing to the agency’s service limitations and staff shortages. These insights touched upon diverse issues including inadequate bathroom access and problems with a widely lauded initiative aimed at providing opportunities for people who have previously encountered barriers to employment. Ultimately, the employees underscored a connection between the worker experience and the service issues tormenting commuters. 

“The hardworking men and women of the CTA are under attack,” Thompson said. 

As he approaches the end of a bus route, Thompson often seeks out a restroom, a fairly simple task that has long caused him and other operators distress, he said.

“Some of the bathrooms are just deplorable,” Thompson said. “Not fit for a dog.” 

He’s referring to the portable toilets the CTA has placed at the ends of some bus lines. According to Thompson and other operators, these bathrooms can be dirty and located in dark, isolated areas. Sometimes, the locks don’t work, he and his colleagues said, making them feel unsafe. Using a porta-potty during colder months, when thermostats often dip below zero degrees, can be especially harrowing, Thompson said. 

“Put yourself in my place real quick,” he said. “It’s 15 degrees below zero. It’s dark. There’s nothing out there. You want to wash your hands after you go . . . How difficult do you think that will be if there’s no water because the water is frozen? If all the employees was white, they wouldn’t have no problems.” 

In 2021, nearly 70 percent of all CTA employees were Black or African American, according to official agency documents. Given Chicago’s long history of racism and disinvestment in marginalized communities, Thompson’s assertion underscores some of the challenges faced by non-white workers.  

Fed up with the lack of proper restrooms, some operators relieve themselves behind the buses, Thompson said. “This is a lack of dignity to a group of human beings who deserve better.”

Thompson’s colleague, a 25-year CTA veteran who wished to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation, said she only chooses bus routes with proper bathrooms on each end. Due to her seniority, she has more control over her schedule and routes. However, she empathizes with those who must use the portable bathrooms. 

“[The CTA is] a multimillion-dollar company; if that’s the best they could come up with for their employees, shame on them,” she said.  

CTA employees and news reports have claimed some workers wear diapers to avoid using porta-potties, although it’s unclear how widespread this practice is.  

CTA spokesperson Maddie Kilgannon said that the “CTA has worked hard to ensure that every bus and rail operator has access to several restroom facilities along their routes.” In addition to facilities at every bus garage and rail terminal, the CTA has secured access to nearly 100 other permanent restrooms, she said, including retail stores, commercial buildings, and other locations throughout the service region. 

However, some workers said they drive buses at hours when many businesses are not open. Furthermore, many of these businesses have restricted bathroom access to paying customers in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the operators said. If an operator urgently requires a restroom, that driver must safely pull over near the chosen bathroom, call the control center, and inform the bus’s passengers, Thompson’s colleague said. 

Although some workers maintain that the portable restrooms often appear dirty, Kilgannon said they are “cleaned and serviced on a regular basis.” While she didn’t specify how often that occurs, she explained that constructing permanent restroom facilities would be logistically and financially challenging because bus routes change often.

Beyond cleanliness and comfort, one of the core issues regarding bathrooms that directly affects service, Thompson said, is that operators often lack sufficient time to use them. 

Previously, workers had about 15 to 20 minutes at the end of a line to recuperate, tend to personal business, drink water, and prepare for the next run, Thompson said. Today, those periods, known as recovery times or layovers, have been reduced to only a handful of minutes, the bus operator said. Various CTA run schedules obtained by the Reader confirm that current recovery periods sometimes last around five or six minutes, occasionally even less. 

“We[’re] just like rippin’ and runnin’ from one end to another like a rabbit,” Thompson said.

Per the agency’s collective bargaining agreement with its local #241 and #308 unions, the longest period any employee can work without a break is five and a half hours, Kilgannon said, in which case the employee will have either a 30- or 60-minute break as part of their picked schedules. Yet outside of required lunch periods, operators don’t receive formal breaks, Thompson’s colleague said, meaning they typically use those layovers to quickly tend to personal matters. Representatives from neither union responded to repeated requests for comment.  

Brandon McFadden, a cybersecurity analyst who tracks CTA train arrivals and is familiar with bus service levels, said that recovery times have shortened because of overbooked schedules. 

For bus operator Robert, who asked to withhold his last name for fear of retaliation, packed schedules are nothing unusual. “The CTA is squeezing more and more and more and more and more work out of the operator’s day,” he said. 

The result, four employees said, is frequently delayed buses. 

If a driver requires even a few extra minutes to use the restroom or tend to other personal matters, that driver risks being late to the next stop, prompting some to try and make up time before sparking a domino effect.

Regarding recovery time, Kilgannon said, “The recovery time/layover at the end of each trip is to keep service on schedule if the trip gets delayed along the route for unforeseen circumstances.” Additionally, she said that while some routes saw average layover times decrease due to recent schedule optimization efforts, average layover time increased overall and systemwide. CTA began introducing optimized rail schedules in late October 2022 and optimized bus schedules in January 2023. Kilgannon also clarified that “layover time is not considered an official break.” 

While inadequate bathroom facilities and shortened recovery times significantly lower employee morale and negatively impact service, the day-to-day issues take a back seat to safety concerns, which profoundly affect the workers interviewed.   

Thompson worries deeply about work-related dangers, so much so that he said he’s developed anxiety, often lying awake at night wondering, “Will I get hurt tomorrow?” While Thompson didn’t specify whether he has been injured at work previously, he said many workers quit in response to the stresses and dangers of the job.

Dealing with agitated, disorderly passengers is not uncommon, said the workers interviewed, nor is receiving threats from those under the influence of substances or who are otherwise impaired. Occasionally, passengers become aggressive, putting the operator and fellow riders at risk. Vehicle delays and fare disagreements tend to exacerbate this kind of behavior, the workers noted.

When asked about violence prevention training, Kilgannon responded that bus and rail operators partake in various training modules upon being hired. These include: “the role of an operator, CTA customer service standards, conflict management/problem solving, safety awareness, activation of silent alarm and bus safety barrier, and more,” she said. 

As attacks targeting transit workers rise nationally, the Chicago Transit Justice Coalition (CTJC), an alliance of bus and train operators, is advocating for stricter safety measures. 

In addition to brick-and-mortar bathrooms, 24-hour employee cafeterias, day cares, and free health insurance, one of the group’s most pressing demands is for the CTA to implement a policy mandating two-person crews for all vehicles—prioritizing train crews—to increase workers’ protection and give apprentices more learning opportunities. With two-person crews, one worker can focus on operating the train while the other can monitor the cars for unsafe behavior and assist with other tasks as needed. 

Railcar repairman Eric Basir, an outspoken CTJC organizer and union steward, said one-person crews make it difficult for workers to properly prepare their trains for trips. Bolstering such crews amid staffing shortages could involve organizing Chicagoans and redirecting tax revenue from “war and the prison industrial complex” toward public transportation, Basir said. 

“As it is currently with one operator, if we follow all procedures ‘by the book,’ the delays would cripple the entire system,” he said. Although Basir is a steward, he speaks on behalf of himself and the CTJC, not the union. 

According to an official CTA document outlining the “duties and responsibilities’’ of rapid transit operators, such workers must complete dozens of steps to prepare their trains for service. These steps range from testing the windshield wipers and horns to locating and inspecting the motor cabs’ fire extinguishers. However, it’s physically “impossible” for rail operators to complete all these required checks without an additional set of hands or increased time at terminals, Basir said. 

These demands, along with various others, were drafted by the CTJC in a two-goal report in response to Mayor Brandon Johnson’s 223-page transition report, which includes various objectives to make the city more equitable for all.  

For the CTA, the safety of employees and customers is the agency’s first priority, said spokesperson Kilgannon. Regarding crime, Kilgannon said that according to the Chicago Police Department, during April, violent crime on the CTA was down 14 percent month to date and 6 percent year to date from the previous year. Overall transit crime is down 9 percent year to date and 15 percent compared to April 2022. 

Additionally, Kilgannon said the agency this year added resources to help complement CPD’s crime-prevention efforts and is continually seeking new ways to expand and improve upon its efforts. While she didn’t specify the details of these newly added resources, she highlighted a Safety Committee formed in 2022 composed of CTA managers, union officials, and employees to foster “open and collaborative dialogue.” 

Repairman Basir also addressed the agency’s Second Chance Program, which, according to the CTA’s website and collective bargaining agreement, requires apprentices—the title given to Second Chance participants—to work up to 40 hours per week for about a year at minimum wage with no sick days, vacation days, or holidays off. While apprentices receive some perks, like paid commercial learner’s permit training; free transportation on CTA, Metra, and Pace; and professional development opportunities; per Kilgannon, they do not receive medical insurance, retirement plan benefits, or paid family leave. Additionally, as stated on the agency’s website, Second Chance workers must “be available to work any shift assigned at any location (CTA is a 24-hour operation).”

“I think people who are incarcerated should get a second chance at employment,” operator Robert said, “but don’t put them in a position to go back. . . . Who can live off of $15.40 an hour?” 

One apprentice, Mark, who asked that his last name be withheld, expressed disappointment with the program. After serving time in prison, Mark said being accepted into the Second Chance Program felt like “winning the lottery.” However, an inability to progress or graduate has prompted him to search for work elsewhere, he said. He added that due to his limited salary, he cannot afford a phone line and relies on a friend’s. Email records confirm Mark’s unsuccessful applications for permanent CTA positions, though the reasons for these rejections could not be verified. 

“You know what happens when you graduate from the Second Chance program?” Mark said. “You graduate to the unemployment line.” 

Kilgannon said the CTA could not publicly comment on Mark’s case but that the Second Chance Program “has provided unprecedented opportunities for people to get their lives back on track.” To date, hundreds of participants have secured permanent CTA positions, Kilgannon said, with some having risen through the ranks to management positions. Others, she added, have found success in the private sector following their time at the agency. 

Mark maintains that the CTA intended to use him as cheap labor and said he wishes the agency had been more transparent. If the program’s focus was cleaning, not career advancement, Mark said, the agency “should’ve put that on the fliers.” 

The workers interviewed suggested several agency improvements, including updating communication systems, prioritizing the well-being of existing workers, and increasing financial incentives. 

Kilgannon acknowledged that in an organization with nearly 11,000 employees, communication always needs improvement. She also stated that the CTA offers a competitive salary compared to other transportation agencies, such as Metra and Pace, from which many CTA workers transfer.  

Ultimately, Thompson said he empathizes with workers who join the CTA thinking it will be the pinnacle of their careers, that they’ll get a pension and be able to provide for their families for years to come. “That’s why people are quitting so quickly, because this is not worth it,” he said. “And if I was to start over again, I would quit.”

Most nights, Thompson aims to be in bed by 8 PM, hoping to fall asleep and quiet the anxieties in his mind before his alarm rings again.