SMART denies bus driver time off to deliver eulogy for co-worker's funeral

- A family wishing to pay a final tribute to their departed loved one hits a roadblock.

After SMART bus driver John Smith passed away, they hoped to have a fellow driver deliver the eulogy. But the co-worker isn't allowed to take the day off.

Fellow SMART drivers are mourning the loss of Smith, 43, a husband, father and veteran who served overseas before taking a job with SMART eight years ago.

The funeral will be held at the Power and Praise Worship Center Tuesday. The man delivering the eulogy is going against SMART's wishes, and possibly risking his job to be there.

"It's hard driving, they want us focused," said Howard Leslie. "You have to be focused driving a bus. You can't take a mental break at any time. And now one of our best friends is dead."

Howard Leslie was hired the same day.

"John was just a good guy," Leslie said. "One story, I had to go move some stuff for my daughter in Kentucky, not the street, the state. And John went down with me to move a washer and dryer - at the drop of a hat."

John unexpectedly died on the job last Tuesday, while wrapping up his route at Maple and Orchard Lake.

"He called his wife at some point in time and said he couldn't breathe," Leslie said.

Leslie says Smith died of pneumonia. Smith's wife of only six months and a SMART bus driver herself, asked Leslie, who also serves as a pastor at Power and Praise Worship Center in Hazel Park, to deliver the eulogy.

"I filled out the paperwork to say I would like to have today and tomorrow off, you have to do it at least two days before," Leslie said. "You wait and they tell you if it's approved or not. I got the slip back and said not approved due to a driver shortage."

Leslie is a union steward and has tried to negotiate the time off, but says SMART won't budge.

"There is a shortage, I understand that, but this is an exceptional situation," Leslie said. "You should be able to call guys in and use someone else for the route."

Howard also believes, by not being allowed to grieve, drivers could put riders at risk.

"Everybody loved John," Leslie said. "So for us not to be able to come and grieve, you don't want people driving those big bosses with passengers grieving, crying."

He knows he's risking good standing with SMART by coming forward publicly, but he says what's most important is paying respect John Smith and his widow.

An official with SMART released this statement:

"Everyone is heartbroken by the sudden death of our Coach Operator, Mr. John Smith.  He and his wife are part of the SMART family.  However, as a public transit agency, SMART’s first obligation is the thousands of people who depend on us to get to work, school and doctor appointments every day.  Unfortunately, on the day of John’s funeral, there were several other drivers who had pre-arranged days off and we reached the maximum number that we could handle without having to cut bus service.  Mr. Leslie did not inform SMART management of why he needed the day off.  He did not in any way let us know of his intentions to give the eulogy for John.  Of course, had Mr. Leslie informed management that he was giving the eulogy, as he has done before, SMART would have certainly worked with his co-workers to cover his route that day, as we have done for him in the past."

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