Monique Rondon, a bus operator in New York City for 23 years, has been spat on and assaulted several times on the job.
Now transit workers and labor unions across America are sounding the alarm over the trend of violence, assaults, and abuse that workers in the transportation industry in the US have faced throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis they say will continue to worsen without federal action and implementation of safety protections and rules.
In New York, at least one worker a week, on average, has reported being assaulted on the job, and dozens report experiencing verbal harassment. Rondon said bus operators are asking for vehicles where operators are completely separated from the public, similar to airline pilots in their cockpits.
“We cannot retain people coming to work. The absentee records are ridiculous just because they’re tired, they’re fed up, emotionally and physically. They don’t feel like they’re getting any help from the transit authority whatsoever,” said Rondon, who is also a chief union steward for Transport Workers Union local 100.
She added: “Nothing is giving them incentive to come to work because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel protected, and they feel like even if they do anything the transit authority comes down on us first.”
More than 20 national labor unions wrote a letter in March to the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Authority, demanding federal action to protect transit workers on the job and implement baseline safety standards that were included in the bipartisan infrastructure law that Joe Biden signed in November.
“Our unions are seeing historic levels of attrition as bus and subway operators, station agents, car cleaners, and others protect themselves in the only way available to them: leaving public transportation,” the unions wrote.
The safety standards include the FTA tracking data on transit worker assaults; updating a national safety plan to include workers’ voices; denying all waiver applications from transit agencies to exempt themselves from safety obligations required by the new law; and establishing minimum level of assault protections. But workers and unions say they have still not been implemented.
A spokesperson for the Federal Transit Administration said the agency is working to implement all requirements of the infrastructure law.
“This is a crisis. What frontline workers are experiencing every day around this country is horrific, and it’s not getting better,” said Greg Regan, president of the transportation trades department at the AFL-CIO. “Historically, workers and unions have been excluded from the safety planning process of the agency. So they think that’s insane. They’re the ones who are the eyes and ears on the ground, who can identify vulnerabilities and help point us in the right direction for meaningful solutions.”
Regan said the need for action is urgent, and that the FTA needs to respond to every worker assault incident to push for improvements and oversight so it does not recur. He cited an ATU survey where more than 75% of transit workers expressed fear of being assaulted on the job on a daily basis. More than 43% of transit workers are eligible to retire in five to 10 years, as transit agencies around the US are still experiencing labor shortages.
“If we’re not able to have the workforce to provide that extended service, then we’re done. I think that the systems are going to fail,” added Regan.
In Utah, ridership has declined since the pandemic, but there were 150 reported cases of assault on drivers between January 2020 and April this year. In 2021, the New Jersey Transit reported 183 assaults on transit workers, three times the annual average. In Phoenix, Arizona, assaults and drug use on public transportation hit a five-year high last year.
Transit workers in Chicago have protested to demand increased safety protections amid numerous reports of assaults against operators over the past year, with more than 300 reported incidents of assaults on transit workers reported in 2021.
“We didn’t sign up to die on these jobs,” said John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 200,000 transit workers in the US and Canada. “It’s growing, and it’s not going to go away until people realize that if you mess with an operator, there’s real consequences – like you will not be able to take transportation any more – or there’s real punishment. But we’re not there yet.”
Rafaele Mastrangelo Jr, a rail specialist at Los Angeles county Metro Transit Authority and a union steward for ATU local 1277, said safety concerns for workers are the worst he’s seen in his 19 years working in the industry.
“I hear over and over again the problems with the lack of security in the system. Workers voice their concerns to management. They’re told they’re being heard, but nothing’s being done,” said Mastrangelo.
He said problems such as drug use, vandalism and assaults on transit lines have worsened through the pandemic, and there remain difficulties in retaining and hiring enough bus and rail operators, which reduces services and forces workers to work longer hours to compensate for the shortages.
“The company has been trying to have a PR campaign to convince the general public and people working at the MTA to help with recruitment to get bus operators, but they’re really struggling to do it. But the issue is who wants to do it. To be a bus operator these days, it’s very dangerous,” added Mastrangelo.