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Public transportation workers say they are facing more harassment, violence

Posted at 2:55 PM, Jul 05, 2022

Bus and train operators across the country say they are experiencing higher levels of violence and harassment on the job.

Sometimes it is violent, sometimes it is verbal, but they say something needs to change so they feel safe at work.

On March 9, 24 labor unions across the country wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Authority demanding federal action to protect workers.

The letter, addressed to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, says, in part, “Our members should not be asked to wait another day to feel safe on the job.”

In December, a Detroit Department of Transportation driver was stabbed by a passenger who was told to get off the bus. In Phoenix, assaults and drug use on public transportation hit a five-year high in 2021. In New York City, officials estimate one transit worker is assaulted, on average, every week.

“I think it’s more prevalent just because of the environment that we’re in,” said Debra A. Johnson, general manager and CEO of the Regional Transportation District in Denver. “Coming out of COVID, just across the board it seems people aren’t as kind and generous as they used to be and recognizing that people are dealing with a myriad of things that we know nothing about.”

On March 12, a passenger on Denver’s light rail became combative when he was confronted by a security officer aboard the train for not having a ticket. Security video from the incident shows the passenger reaching for the security officer’s head before the officer wrestles the man into a seat and police arrive at the next stop.

“Oftentimes, folks are taking out their angst on front-line employees,” said Johnson. “In relationship to what’s happening to our front-line workers, it’s no different from the viral videos you’ll see of somebody behaving badly when it relates to somebody working in a restaurant, Starbucks, or grocery store.”

“It’s very difficult because they feel as if they don’t have anybody with them,” she added. “I think if anything, we, as a transit industry need to think about what might be best suited.”

Johnson has used what she calls “verbal judo” training with her employees, so they are better equipped to understand and defuse situations before they escalate. She has also prioritized making her feel employees feel more supported and seen since their jobs can sometimes feel isolating.

Nationally, labor unions have lobbied the Federal Transit Authority to update policies that reduce risk and strengthen penalties against those who might act out.