August 12, 2022

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The Legal System

US: Infrastructure law demands new focus on transit worker assaults

4 min read

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WASHINGTON — Mohammed Miah signed onto the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City to operate trains. He did not sign up to be punched in the face.

Still, it’s happened twice since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s still recovering from the second assault, which occurred last September and left him with a jaw injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. To his knowledge, no suspect has been arrested.

“If you assault a police officer, you get in really big trouble,” he said. “That’s not the case for us.”

Transit operators and unions say they’ve seen a spike in violence against transit workers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And workers complain it’s hard to quantify that spike.

Under the Federal Transit Administration’s prior definition, a worker was considered assaulted if, for example, they had to be hospitalized for more than 48 hours or of they had certain fractures, severe bleeding, or damage to nerves, muscles, tendons or internal organs. The FTA also does not separate customer assaults from assaults by fellow workers in the National Transit Database, according to the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Provisions in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law aim to change that.

The provisions create a legal definition of assault as “a circumstance in which an individual knowingly, without lawful authority or permission, and with intent to endanger the safety of any individual, or with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life, interferes with, disables, or incapacitates a transit worker while the transit worker is performing the duties of the transit worker.” It also requires transit agencies to develop a risk reduction program for assaults on transit workers.

That the law creates a more specific definition of assault is important, according to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Currently, “the way they define assault is really odd,” he said. “You could have a worker with a broken nose, and it would not be considered an assault under the current guidelines. Similarly, a driver who had hot coffee thrown on him would not be considered assaulted.”

Without data, he said, unions have had to collect information via Google search or news clips — a method that doesn’t capture the full scope of assaults.

What they are capturing is grim:

— In February, a bus driver in the Bronx was attacked by a passenger wielding a tree branch. The driver was hospitalized.

— In March, a passenger beat a Richmond, Va., bus driver and kicked him in the head.

— In 2019, before the pandemic, a Tampa bus driver was killed after a passenger slit his throat.

Regan said transit operators aren’t the only ones who’ve seen a rise in violence: Flight attendants are also reporting incidents of being kicked, punched or groped.

Last week, the House passed 339-85 a bill that would require all transportation modes to establish formal policies, training and reporting structures on sexual assault and harassment — another effort to combat a reported rise in hostility against those who work in transportation.

John Costa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing more than 200,000 transit and transportation workers, said his union has worried about violence on transit operators for years.

Back when he was serving as the state president of ATU Local 819 in Newark, N.J., an operator was stabbed seven times. The assailant was charged with simple assault. Ultimately, the union had to fight to get the charges upgraded, showing up at court hearings and publicizing the charges. “I don’t know how you can stab someone seven times and call it simple assault,” Costa said.

“When I get on a plane and someone says something out of line, they’re taken off the plane and banned from flying on that airline again,” he said. “We don’t do things like that. … I think that’s why it’s gotten out of hand — people just think they can treat an operator any way they want and who cares.”

FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez has set a July 31 deadline for agencies to begin work on transit safety plans, and a Dec. 31 deadline to complete them. The law requires the plans be crafted by labor and management and be updated every year as long as the law is in place.

“FTA will continue working with labor and management throughout the country to ensure those committees are created and that they are effective at protecting American transit workers,” said an FTA spokesperson said, adding “It is unacceptable for the men and women who connect all of us to our communities to fear for their safety at work.”

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