DENVER — Nearly 200 bus and rail operators with the Regional Transportation District (RTD) received paid time off due to drug exposure during a four-month period this year.
Many called for relief after an exposure while driving, often causing delays in service.
Denver7 Investigates obtained data through an open records request for RTD operator drug exposure claims, money paid out for medical expenses, time-off granted to drivers per a union agreement in January and delays resulting from relief.
RTD began tracking operators who were given two days off — the day they were exposed plus an additional day — in April. This time-off comes via an agreement between RTD and the union representing its operators.
Between April 1 and Aug. 6, 192 operators were given time off after claiming they were exposed to drugs while on the train. Data shows RTD paid out $99,704.33 in medical expenses to staff who were exposed to drugs between the start of 2022 and mid-August 2023.
“Drivers call in every day,” one veteran operator told a Denver7 Investigates hidden camera. The driver did not know he was on camera when making comments. “People get on the train, they smoke fentanyl... It’s all over.”
Data shows that 163 operators this year called for relief after drug exposure while driving. Those calls have resulted in an average delay of roughly 32 minutes per route, with the longest delays coming on bus routes.
Denver7 Investigates spoke to riders on hidden cameras who said they see drug use on buses, light rail and commuter rail every day.
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Hidden cameras also captured several riders using drugs throughout multiple trips.
“Oh we get sick every day. Drivers get sick, drivers call in, drivers call in sick,” the veteran operator said. “Nothing has been done about it. We complain over and over... Very, very frustrating.”
When asked how drivers prove exposure, RTD Chief People Officer Charlene Polege said they are taken at their word.
“If they tell us they were exposed, they were exposed. And we will treat them accordingly,” she said.
Research from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment states “airborne and dermal exposure to fentanyl does not represent a realistic threat to safety.” Also the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Center published a paper regarding myths about fentanyl. One myth listed is that being near fentanyl causes “serious effects.”
RTD Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald said he was surprised by the data obtained by Denver7 Investigates but didn’t think it was his place to question whether drivers should get time off for exposure to drugs.
“I think it’s fair for journalism to question anything,” he said. “My job is not to judge a driver. My job is to look at what’s going on in the system and try to minimize the potential for them to be exposed to any kind of narcotics.”
The chief and his team acknowledge the challenge of mitigating fentanyl’s escalating impact and the validity of complaints from both riders and operators.
“I would describe it as just plain use,” RTD Police Corporal Jacob Schubert said. “Total disregard for the laws.”
Polege said RTD is working to address the issue, but resources are a problem.
“We need to be able to hit all corners at all times in all moments, and we don’t have the resources to do that at this time,” she said.