Loss of bus driver job may be reversed

Staff WriterOctober 7, 2006 

CHAPEL HILL - Barbara Gear got her old salary back. Now she wants her old job back.

The veteran bus driver, who lost her job because she lacked medical clearance to drive, has been working part time for Chapel Hill Transit as a janitor for $12.50 an hour. She'll start back full time as a janitor Monday night, with her previous hourly wage of $16.74.

On Wednesday, the state Division of Motor Vehicles approved a medical waiver to let Gear once again take the wheel of a transit bus, but that doesn't mean the town will let her.

Fifty years ago, Gear lost her right eye in an accident with her brother's bow and arrow. Still, the vision in her left eye was good enough for her to drive Chapel Hill buses for 23 years.

In 2002, Chapel Hill Transit started requiring a proof of physical fitness from the state Department of Transportation. In 2003, Gear applied for a waiver allowing her to receive that DOT approval despite having one eye. The waiver was good for two years plus a three-month extension.

This January, that extension expired, but Gear didn't realize it until May. When she tried to reapply for the waiver, a town doctor decided she didn't qualify.

The medical review branch of the DMV at first agreed. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require 35/35 peripheral vision. Gear still met that standard, but her sight was getting worse, and an off-duty accident in a personal vehicle in March made a reviewer cancel the waiver, said Susan Stewart, DMV's medical review director.

In August, the town offered Gear a part-time job as a janitor for $12.50 an hour. Gear and the City Workers Union protested, saying she would lose out on a full retirement package if she didn't work full time at her higher salary for seven more years to reach age 62. Gear also hired a Durham-based lawyer, Faith Herndon.

This week, the town responded by offering Gear a full-time job as a janitor at the Chapel Hill Transit headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Gear accepted the job and will start Monday night.

"It's been a really crazy ride," she said.

She's not entirely happy with the new gig. She'll be working from 9 p.m. to 2 in the morning. She understands that's a good time to clean bathrooms and fill fuel tanks, but it's going to change her life dramatically. She'd rather be driving a bus.

Stewart said as far as DMV is concerned, she can do just that. Stewart reviewed Gear's case and decided that the accident had nothing to do with her eyesight and that her vision was still adequate. Stewart granted the waiver for one year.

"The first time she got two years, but her vision had gone down a little bit," Stewart said. "She's not over a whole lot, but she meets [the standards] ... . Whether she gets her job back, of course, that is up to Chapel Hill."

Town officials declined to comment, citing Gear's privacy.

"Personnel matters are confidential," town spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko said.

Herndon said with the waiver in hand, her client should be able to drive a bus again.

"Man, if I'd been a bus driver for years, I wouldn't want to be a janitor," Herndon said.

Staff writer Jesse James DeConto can be reached at 932-8760 or jdeconto@newsobserver.com.

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