Despite Decrease In Passengers, Transit Workers See Increase In Attacks

19 Feb, 2021 Liz Carey


Newark, NJ ( – Transit workers have long been subject to attacks while working, but in the past year, they say that while passenger numbers have fallen, attacks have increased.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York City, ridership is down 70 percent in the subway and 50 percent on buses. Yet, assaults on transit workers are up, said Pat Foye, Chairman and CEO of the MTA in a letter to NYC Mayor Bill de Blassio.

Data from the MTA shows that 58 NYC transit workers reported being physically attacked between January and July 2020. Hundreds more, the agency said, were harassed or spit on. During the same time in 2019, when the agency saw about 4 million more passengers, only 53 transit workers reported being assaulted.

Similar situations are happening around the country, union leaders said. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, transit workers have been attacked for asking passengers to wear masks, and for other reasons.

Assaults on Transit Workers

In July, MTA bus driver Anthony Reid asked a man on his Brooklyn bus to wear a mask. In response, the man hit him in the back of the head.

“Next thing I know, I woke up in an ambulance,” 62-year-old Reid told THE CITY. “I said, ‘What am I doing here?’”

The incident left Reid with a broken bone near his eye and a busted lip.

In Boston last November, transit police arrested a Dorchester man accused of assaulting an MBTA bus driver who asked him to wear a mask. Instead of putting on a mask, the 19-year-old passenger told the driver he had COVID-19 and coughed in the driver’s face, then assaulted him with chalk blocks used when the bus is in park.

Earlier this month, an MTA bus driver was knocked unconscious by a passenger.

Police said the passenger spit on the driver. When the driver came out from behind his partition to confront the passenger, the passenger hit him in the head with a 2x4 causing him to lose consciousness.

And, last week in Grand Rapids, Mich., police said a man attacked a Rapid bus driver after the driver would not allow the man on the bus because he didn’t have any money or a bus pass. The man then physically assaulted the bus driver and threatened him with a weapon before running away.

Since the start of 2021, MTA officials said, there have been 170 attacks on transit workers.

"It's a massive issue, and it's a growing problem," said Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer at Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD). "[I] don't know what's fueling it. But the direction of anger or frustration at people who are doing their jobs and operating our transit systems is completely unacceptable."

Monique Rondon, an MTA bus driver and shop steward for the Transport Workers Union's (TWU) Local 100 in New York City, said she believes the attacks are due to mental health issues.

Rodon said she believes the assaults stem from societal factors, including a lack of availability of mental health treatment services and social services not being delivered effectively.

"I can tell you, there's a lot of mental illness out there," she told SmartCitiesDive. "There are a lot of people that can't afford medication or are denied medication. There's a lot of angry people… But we tend to be a target. We're a sitting duck."

Elected officials are starting to take notice as well.

Legislative Efforts

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing new legislation and language in his FY 2021 budget that would make spitting or other forms of harassment of transit workers a crime punishable by up to a year behind bars.

“We need this to be a felony. We need people to go to jail, for people to know there’s serious consequences if you do something to the people who came to work to move the city,” said ATU Local 1181's Michael Cordello.

In New Jersey, legislators have introduced the New Jersey Transit Bus Riders’ Bill of Rights. The bill is currently being debated in the Assembly’s Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.

Provisions of the bill would improve service on NJ Transit, and will provide proper safety equipment and training to protect operators and passengers.

"We have seen a rise in attacks on the bus operators as well as train operators, and some of it's a level of frustration from the passengers," Assemblyman Daniel Benson, one of the bill's sponsors, said in a statement. "But also, I think it's the times we live in, so we have to do more to both provide training and backup for our transit employees so that they feel safe at all times."

On the national level, Congress members are working on the issue as well. In 2019, U.S. Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Cal.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), along with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), introduced the Transit Workers and Pedestrians Protection Act that would give transit agencies two years to develop Bus Operations Safety Risk Reduction Programs and Rail Operations Worker Assault Risk Reduction Programs. The legislation directs that programs would be overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and that $25 million a year for five years would be allocated to pay for those programs, as well as de-escalation training for drivers and barriers to stop assaults.

The proposed legislation would also require agencies to report transit worker assaults to the USDOT’s National Transit Database.

The bill was referred to committee.

It has not been reintroduced to the 117th Congress, as of yet.


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    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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