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Transit worker unions call on safety agency to implement infrastructure law

Transit workers "are at risk of assault and worse each day they arrive at work,” the unions say.
The M101 bus in New York
A bus in Manhattan, N.Y., in May 2020.Michael Noble Jr. / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The main federal transportation safety agency still has not enforced provisions in President Joe Biden's infrastructure law that would protect workers as assaults on transit continue to trend up, a group of transit unions said Wednesday.

"Our members include bus and rail transit operators, station agents, car cleaners, mechanics, and other frontline workers, all of whom are at risk of assault and worse each day they arrive at work," the labor unions said in a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, part of the Transportation Department.

The co-signers include the Amalgamated Transit Union, which is the country's largest transit union, the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and the Transport Workers Union.

"President Biden committed to protecting these workers and that promise was enshrined into law as part of the BIL," meaning the bipartisan infrastructure law, the unions said. Biden signed the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law in November.

Assaults on transit drivers, which have long been a concern, escalated during the coronavirus pandemic. The unions representing front-line transit employees have responded through legislative measures, including the infrastructure law.

“It has now been almost four months since the passage of the BIL and transit workers — who, like any of us, simply want to go to work each day and not worry about whether they may be attacked or killed on the job — have continued to face the threat of violence in the workplace,” the letter continued.

The unions point to several incidents, including one in December when a Detroit Transportation Department driver was stabbed by a passenger who was told to get off the bus and another last month when a bus driver was attacked when an assailant quickly got off the bus, picked up a tree branch and beat her with it before fleeing. 

Separately, a bus driver in Detroit died from the coronavirus in 2020 two weeks after having posted a video complaining about a passenger who he said refused to cover her mouth while coughing.

The unions specifically ask the FTA to implement a provision that requires them to collect accurate data about transit workforce assaults, to reform its Public Transportation Agency Safety Plan process to include workers’ voices and incorporate measures to reduce the risk of assault in every transit system, and to update its national safety plan to address the risk of assault and public health concerns.

In addition to the rise in assaults on transit workers, passenger-to-passenger violence has also increased — putting workers in a difficult position.

Several people have been stabbed, assaulted or shoved onto the tracks at stations in New York City in recent months. In January, a 40-year-old woman was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming train in the Times Square subway station.

“Bus drivers take safety seriously, and sometimes that involves mediating and getting to a place where law enforcement can intervene,” Greg Regan, the president of the Transportation Trades Department, said in an interview.

Regan added that the unions have given the FTA and the Transportation Department time to implement the law and that they "should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time."

"We want to give them space, but at this point four months after ... we continue to see more and more incidents. We feel national awareness and pressure to get them moving is the right thing to do."

The FTA did not immediately reply to a request for comment.