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‘Ticking time-bomb’: Lag in protections for transit workers could hamper hiring and system upgrades

By Admin

Reported by Eleanor Mueller for Politico.

Stacey Berry was recently commuting to work in uniform as a Chicago Transit Authority rail operator when a passenger on the city’s red line attacked him unprovoked.

“I guess you could call it a sucker punch,” Berry, 50, said.

Berry ended up not making it to his shift that day. Instead, he went to the hospital, where they gave him medication to calm down, and then returned home.

“Now, it’s like all the time,” Berry said of the frequency of such assaults on fellow transit workers. “It lets me down” that more hasn’t been done.

Congress passed long-fought-for provisions aimed at improving transit workplace safety as part of its bipartisan infrastructure bill in November, 20 months into a pandemic that saw violence against workers spike across industries. One requirement: that transit agencies and unions join forces to form safety planning committees.

But the agency responsible for implementing the language, the Federal Transit Administration, says it doesn’t plan to enforce the provisions until the end of 2022. And the group that represents transit agencies, the American Public Transit Association, is pushing to extend that timeline, which it says does not give its members enough time to pull together the requisite committees.

As bus drivers, subway operators, maintenance workers and others face a growing risk of attacks, economists warn that the delay could hamstring recruitment and retention of transit workers, rendering the infrastructure bill’s $39 billion in new public transit funding less effective.

Workplace violence against transit workers “manifests itself in awful ways,” ZipRecruiter Chief Economist Julia Pollak said. “It leads to fewer people using transit; then less money flowing into the system; then fewer resources to solve the problem.”

National data on attacks against transit workers is incomplete and unreliable. But reports from local agencies indicate an alarming upswing in incidents over the last two years.

New Jersey Transit workers experienced 183 assaults in 2021 — triple the norm, according to leadership. Employees of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority consistently report as many as six assaults per week. And there are similar figures out of Illinois, Utah, Arizona and other states.

During the pandemic, “it’s been well-documented that people, for whatever reason, felt that they can take out their anger and frustration on the men and women who are tasked with transporting them safely from point A to point B — which is wild,” AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan said.

Of all the transportation industries, “transit is probably the worst right now.”

The language in the infrastructure package, pulled from a separate standalone bill, directs transit agencies to set goals for improving worker safety by reducing the rate and severity of attacks, and to include workers and unions in their safety planning processes. It also requires the agencies to collect data on assaults and submit it to FTA.

The FTA maintains that it is moving as fast as it can. A spokesperson pointed to the deadlines it has set for transit agencies, as well as a variety of webinars and presentations on the provisions, as proof of the progress it has made.

“FTA is working diligently to implement all requirements of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Safety is the North Star for everyone at the U.S. Department of Transportation.”

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