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King County Metro Transit must pay a $3,500 fine for failing to provide bus drivers enough places — or time — to use the restroom.

The nation’s seventh-largest public bus agency “did not provide transit operators with unrestricted access to bathroom facilities when needed to relieve themselves,” said the citation, issued Friday by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Transit operators and their union have long griped about inadequate bathroom breaks and the lack of access to toilets. Drivers often resort to the “potty dance” to keep their composure, which causes traffic hazards, as well as long-term threats to the kidneys and digestive system, Paul Bachtel, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, has said in past interviews.

Growing traffic congestion has only made the problem worse, as bus drivers work harder to stay on schedule. Some have resorted to adult diapers or urinating in a bottle, activist bus drivers have said.

The citation notes that:

• Metro’s porta-potty at Othello Station has lacked paper towels, soap and running water for six years.

• Some of the drivers’ designated restrooms aren’t open all the hours that buses run.

• Some routes don’t have any restrooms within short walking distance.

• At times, when transit operators have had to search for a restroom, they have been disciplined for running late.

In addition, the news website Crosscut last week reported that maintenance crews replace 60 driver seats per year that have been soaked by urine, according to Local 587 Vice President Neal Safrin.

Metro has until Dec. 22 to pay the fine and submit an improvement plan to Labor and Industries. The department called the violation a serious breach of worker protection laws.

Next year, the problem may ease when a new $60 car-tab fee goes into effect within Seattle. Much of that cash will go toward adding buses to routes that are chronically behind schedule or crowded. Logically speaking, that ought to reduce the pressure on bus drivers to shorten layovers between trips, said Kevin Desmond, Metro’s general manager.

Desmond warned years ago about the risk of shortening driver breaks between bus trips, when a 2009 audit suggested tightening the schedules by 200,000 service hours to save $20 million a year. The County Council settled for 120,000 fewer hours, but problems immediately followed, and Metro restored 40,000 of them, he said.

“We care about our operators,” Desmond said.

Management and the union agreed on contract language this year to protect break times, but the broader contract, featuring a pair of wage freezes, was overwhelmingly rejected by the rank and file — triggering future arbitration.

Desmond said one Metro employee will be chosen as the person responsible for restroom issues. Metro will also look for new free or low-cost arrangements under which drivers will be able to use facilities in restaurants, cafes or retail shops. Porta-potties won’t necessarily be increased, he said, and Metro does not expect to build permanent restrooms.

The problem is hardest to tackle in residential neighborhoods, he said.

Long-term routes might be adjusted to bring the endpoints closer to a restroom, he said. In the suburbs, there’s no extra money to loosen the schedules by adding buses or allowing longer schedule times, he said.

Asked if he or the management team mishandled the restroom issue, Desmond said the Labor and Industries fine is a wake-up call. “I would not characterize this as a program failure or a management failure. We learn as people help us see issues we’re challenged with.”

Desmond said he’ll re-emphasize that the driver rule book allows restroom breaks even when buses are behind schedule.

But he also acknowledges there is self-imposed pressure among transit operators to skip restroom breaks so they avoid being late and upsetting passengers. Beyond that, many drivers feel loyalty to their regular customers and want to make sure they get to work on time.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom