I-TEAM: Former drawbridge employees say long shifts put public at risk

Three whistleblowers are warning of potential danger on Northeast Florida’s iconic drawbridges: downtown Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge, St. Augustine’s Bridge of Lions, the Crescent Beach Bridge, and the Ortega River Bridge.

The News4JAX I-TEAM’s review of hundreds of pages of records from the Florida Department of Transportation shows a pattern of apparent contract violations as recently as mid-2023 by the company hired to staff these bridges, but records show, FDOT didn’t take action.

The contractors in charge of staffing the bridges and FDOT said there have been no safety incidents in the years in question, and FDOT said it allowed deviations from the contracts’ standards on a case-by-case basis when staffing shortages presented themselves. But the people bearing the brunt of those decisions said the cumulative effect of those decisions took a toll on them.

RELATED: Bridge report: 5 Jacksonville area bridges are ‘structurally deficient’

In Northeast Florida, bridge tenders, who work in the little huts on drawbridges called “tender houses,” raise the bridges for boats and lower traffic arms for the safety of drivers. Full-time bridge tenders are limited to regular eight-hour shifts, according to FDOT’s contract with the company providing staffing.

But three former bridge tender supervisors in Northeast Florida said they worked much longer hours, and lack of sleep caused by unreasonable work demands led to potential danger to the public.

“The biggest risk? Well, somebody getting killed,” said Daron Taylor, who worked as a bridge tender supervisor until December of 2021.

“No one can stay awake for that long and operate a bridge,” said another former bridge tender supervisor who did not want to be identified.

“You’re going delirious from lack of sleep,” said Crystal Taylor, who worked as a bridge tender supervisor in early 2022.

Daron and Crystal Taylor are a married couple who moved to Jacksonville in 2020 to work for a company called ISS Services, which was contracted with FDOT to manage the four drawbridges in Northeast Florida.

They said trying to keep the bridges operating and safe took a devastating toll on them.

“This ruined my life,” Crystal Taylor said. “It ruined my husband.”

According to the three whistleblowers, the problems are systemic.

“There just weren’t enough people to keep them staffed 24/7…because these bridges are manned 24/7,” Daron Taylor said.

He said as a supervisor, it fell on him to work the gaps in the schedule. Even though he was responsible for scheduling, training, hiring, and compliance — and the company’s contract prohibited supervisors from working on the bridges as tenders, except in emergencies. But he said it seemed there was always an emergency of short staffing.

“It was a continual cycle, revolving door,” he said. “The minute I’d get one tender certified, I’d lose two tenders.”

That meant he would fill in as a bridge tender on top of his other responsibilities. It also meant long shifts.

According to the contract, full-time bridge tenders are limited to regular eight-hour shifts. Any shift of 10 hours or more is subject to a $250 non-performance assessment by FDOT.

The I-TEAM reviewed hundreds of pages of log books and additional records to test the whistleblowers’ allegations. The records show FDOT failed to enforce the cap on shift lengths in 2022 and 2023, even when people worked a 23-hour shift in a tender house. Sleeping on the job isn’t an option, as it could get a bridge tender criminally charged.

Log books detailing bridge tender shifts show that during the seven months from June to December of 2022 on the Main Street Bridge, where three tenders work at a time, there were at least 387 shifts longer than 10 hours. Sometimes, those shifts lasted 16 hours or more.

At the Bridge of Lions, from April to December of 2022, at least 86 shifts lasted 10 hours or more.

If FDOT had fined the contractors $250 for each of those long shifts, it would have resulted in a penalty of $118,250.

A former employee, who did not want to be identified, sometimes worked shifts as a tender as long as 23 hours on the Bridge of Lions last summer, but again, records show FDOT didn’t fine the contractor.

“I would go from working a 16-hour shift to having to go home and do payroll. And my phone would never stop, so it turned into just a perpetual state of delirium and chest pain and anxiety,” they said.

But because FDOT didn’t fine, the contractor didn’t pay, and the workers, especially supervisors, continued to spend long hours on the bridges.

“I would work Main Street Bridge, a shift, two shifts, leave right from there…go to Ortega, or go to Bridge of Lions, work a shift, two shifts, go from that one to Crescent Beach,” Daron Taylor said. “I mean, it was like that…bridge after bridge, day after day, night after night.”

He said it got worse when the contractor was sold to a company called Velociti Services, which took over operations in December of 2021 before officially taking over the contract the following summer. Records show the company has a contract with FDOT for nearly $4 million to staff the bridges through May 2025.

Velociti is a division of Argenbright Holdings, which according to its website, is a company with over 20,000 employees that produces more than $1 billion in revenue in the facility services and aviation services industries.

Daron Taylor said he was making $18.50 an hour as a supervisor and running himself ragged. His wife said he even became suicidal.

“When you go with lack of sleep, you become someone that you yourself, you don’t know…you do things, you see things that aren’t there,” she said.

Daron Taylor said finally, in December of 2022 when he was called to cover one more time for a shift in the middle of the night, he said no.

“At that point, I mean, it was never going to stop if I didn’t stop,” he said.

The company was fined $11,000: $1,000 for each hour someone from FDOT had to fill in at the bridge. He wonders why FDOT didn’t enforce the other staffing violations that led up to it and continued afterward.

“That’s the million dollar question, ain’t it?” he said.

When asked what kept him going, he said, “When I got here, I gave my word…I wasn’t gonna quit on them because every supervisor had before, one way or another, has quit, walked off or whatever…and if I give my word to somebody, I try to keep it. I mean, that’s all you got is your word, and when you ain’t got that, you got nothing.”

Crystal Taylor said that’s how he was left when he walked away from the job that had defined both of their lives. She moved up from assistant supervisor to supervisor before leaving after a grueling few months.

When the former employee who spoke to the I-TEAM anonymously became supervisor, they wanted to make it work, too.

“The responsibility made me feel like something and someone,” they said. “And if the job was what it’s supposed to be, I know that I could do it. I think that they know that, and they find people that feel that way and prey on it.”

Records show that one week last year, that bridge tender supervisor spent nearly 55 hours as a tender, including a 16-hour shift, plus their other duties, like inspections.

When asked if they get nervous about making a mistake after getting little sleep, they said, “Absolutely.”

The I-TEAM also asked what needs to change.

“I think that these people are making life and death decisions every day…and it’s how we get to work. It’s how we take our kids to school, and these people need to be paid more than fast food workers,” they responded.

All three former supervisors interviewed by the I-TEAM said there needs to be accountability.

“If you’re going to set guidelines, standards, and procedures, hold them accountable to it,” Daron Taylor said. “If they don’t do it, fine them. If you got to fine them to the point it defaults the contract and you have to get another company in here that’s capable that has the manpower and the competent people to do it, so be it! Nobody gets killed.”

The I-TEAM contacted the current contractor, and Velociti said they faced staffing challenges through the summer of 2023 that have since been remedied. Here’s what they told the I-TEAM:

“During the transition period, staffing challenges required some employees to work overtime while Velociti hired and trained additional personnel. This was communicated to FDOT officials and followed FDOT policies and regulations. Today, Velociti’s bridge tending operations at both locations are fully staffed; we conduct regular safety meetings and cross-train our bridge tenders to minimize instances of supervisors filling in as tenders. Additionally, since Velociti took over, there have not been injuries or accidents caused by a tender’s lack of care or attention, and no vacancies that would affect trade and contract terms or endanger the public and our workers. Both FDOT and the US Coast Guard have praised Velociti for its outstanding performance and dedication to safety. Velociti Services is proud to provide our associates with a great career and maintain a record of operational safety.”

The I-TEAM also contacted the former contractor, ISS, which said no safety incidents related to shift hours were reported, and “Ensuring the safety of our employees and the general public is extremely important to ISS, and we understand and support the public’s interest in safeguarding Florida’s bridges.”

In a statement, FDOT said the safety of the public and the proper operations of the bridges are of paramount importance, and that the record of zero accidents related to bridge tenders in Northeast Florida in recent years is a testament to their commitment to public safety.

FDOT wrote: “The 8-hour shift reflected in your question is far short of the industry standard of 12-hour shifts, which FDOT permitted on a case-by-case basis when staff shortages presented themselves. FDOT has approved alternate shifts, including the ability for supervisors to perform bridge-tending duties in extenuating circumstances. FDOT expects contractors to fulfill their contractual obligations and proactively address issues that arise throughout the life of the contract. Items mentioned above will be considered when updating scopes of work.”

If you have information about a lack of staffing or improper operations at Florida drawbridges, the I-TEAM wants to hear from you. You can submit a tip at newstips@news4jax.com.

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