Safety concerns drive ATU Local 1005 transit operators dispute: Twin Cities bus drivers,Cities bus drivers, light-rail operators are being assaulted more often; threaten strike

Safety concerns drive ATU Local 1005 transit operators dispute: Twin Cities bus drivers,Cities bus drivers, light-rail operators are being assaulted more often; threaten strike
By Ryan Faircloth / St. Paul Pioneer Press on Dec 2, 2017 at 8:23 p.m.

Metro Transit bus operator David Stiggers at Union Depot Station in St. Paul on Thursday, Nov. 30. Stiggers has driven Metro Transit buses for 11 years. In that time he has been frequently verbally harassed, pelted with objects and received death threats. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)1 / 2
ST. PAUL — Jane Hanson was clearing her light-rail train at Union Depot one morning when a heroin-abusing passenger struck her from behind.

Jeanne O'Neill has been assaulted, groped and spat on in her 17 years as a Metro Transit bus driver.

David Stiggers has fielded verbal abuse and death threats while driving his bus routes.

In the Twin Cities, assaults on operators have grown more common over the past five years, with many incidents stemming from conflicts as minor as fare disputes. Operator-safety concerns recently became a major sticking point in a contract dispute between unionized workers and the Metropolitan Council, which runs the Metro Transit system. Drivers and transit personnel are threatening a Super Bowl strike unless protective measures are taken.

"(Assaults are) a constant stress that transit operators all over the country face," said Mark Lawson, president of Amalgamated ­Transit Union Local 1005, which authorized the strike.

Last year, 162 assaults were reported among the more than 1,500 Metro Transit operators. The incidents range from serious ­felony-level assaults to disorderly conduct and threats.

The 2016 assaults represent a nearly 17 percent jump from 2013. Early numbers on 2017 assaults suggest they'll keep pace with last year's total.

Metro Transit, which operates its own police force, said the safety of its employees and passengers remains a priority. From de-escalation and self-defense training to public awareness campaigns, the agency says it takes numerous steps to protect its train and bus operators.

Operators, though, say their safety concerns have gone largely unaddressed, creating a work environment where tense confrontations are commonplace.

"I want us all to be protected. I want us to be able to go home at night and not have a black eye or be spit on," Hanson said.

Transit officials maintain there's no uniform approach to protecting all drivers from harm.

A common occurrence

Hanson suffered five bulging discs in her neck from her light-rail assault in 2015. She required three to four months of rehabilitation before returning to work.

"Every time that I pulled in (to the garage after the attack), I requested police because there was no way I was going to go through that again," she said.

Hanson transitioned from light-rail to bus operation last year. She still encounters aggressive passengers on occasion.

Stiggers first started driving Metro Transit buses 11 years ago. He quickly learned which routes were desired and avoided by operators.

"You end up watching people get beat up, you end up watching people get cussed out," he said. "Sometimes you get some legitimately crazy individuals on your bus."

Stiggers' situational awareness has grown with his experience, helping him sense warning signs and defuse conflicts before they escalate.

O'Neill said she's experienced multiple instances of sexual harassment as a driver. A passenger once stood behind her and muttered sexual suggestions as she drove her route.

Sometimes, she said, situations became physical.

"I've had my butt grabbed by what turned out to be an unregistered sex offender," O'Neill said. The incident occurred as she attempted to secure a wheelchair on the bus.

" 'Don't touch the driver' is a message I would like to tell the public," she said.

Current deterrents

Metro Transit announced Friday that 20 buses would be retrofitted with plexiglass driver enclosures in the coming weeks as part of a test.

"There's a renewed desire to do a pilot exploration to see, is this going to be something that solves or eliminates (these concerns)?" said Brian Funk, Metro Transit's deputy chief operating officer for bus.

Drivers will have the option to open or close the clear plexiglass shields, he said.

The shields will likely be tested over the course of six months so transit officials can seek feedback from operators, Funk said. Metro Transit will extend the demonstration if more input is needed.

"We want to go through the process and ensure that it is something our employees do want," Funk said.

Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla said officials use various methods to deter operator assaults, like publicizing penalties imposed on offenders. A Minnesota law that took effect in 2013 heightened penalties for certain degrees of assault, subjecting assailants to gross misdemeanor charges.

"I'm out there all the time talking about 'we will hold people accountable,' " Padilla said.

Buses and trains are retrofitted with cameras, Padilla said, and transit police make an effort to sit in on routes when available.

Metro Transit also offers annual pepper-spray classes for operators who want to defend themselves, Funk said.

Striking for safety

Unionized transit workers rejected the Met Council's most recent contract offer last month, citing safety as one of their primary concerns. Plexiglass enclosures on buses were among their demands.

O'Neill said a protective shield would have prevented incidents where she was struck or spat on.

Union President Mark ­Lawson said workers want to collaborate with Metro Transit to find the best-suited safety enclosure for the bus fleet.

"I just feel like the goal ought to be a fully integrated design on every single bus," he said.

If the dispute isn't resolved by January, transit operators and support personnel say they will go on strike during Super Bowl LII, which will be held Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.

Lawson and Local 1005 union workers met with the Met Council for another round of negotiations on Nov. 22. The discussions were largely unproductive, Lawson said.

"As of this point, there are no more talks scheduled," he said.

Metro Transit workers last went on strike in 2004. It lasted roughly six weeks.

Operator assaults felt nationwide

Assaults on operators have driven transit agencies across the country to implement safety measures.

New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority earlier this year retrofitted the last of the city's 4,700-bus fleet with protective partitions. NYC transit union officials believe the partitions are responsible for a drop in reported operator assaults.

Buses in Washington, D.C., have also been retrofitted with protective shields, but not all assaults have been avoided.

A woman was arrested in August for throwing a cup of her own urine around a protective shield at a D.C. bus driver. And last month, a man wielding a knife reached around a D.C. bus driver's partition and threatened to kill him.

Finding the right fix

Metro Transit officials will evaluate the effectiveness of the plexiglass shields to ensure no new safety hazards are introduced, Funk said.

"We don't want to introduce something that could lead to other issues such as additional glare, or a situation where if there's a crash ... the barrier is no longer operable and it puts the operator in a compromising position," he said.

Funk also said not all operators embrace the idea of being enclosed.

Polly Hanson, director of security, risk and emergency management for the American Public Transportation Association, said transit agencies are most successful when taking a multifaceted approach to operator safety.

"It's a layered approach that most properties take: public awareness campaigns, enhanced penalties, looking at the configuration of the bus, and then getting the message out about prosecutions when they occur to have that as a deterrent effect as well," she said.

Still, Jane Hanson said ­having a protective enclosure on her Metro Transit bus would make her job much less nerve-racking.

"That would make me ­happy," she said. "I love the public, I love the contact, I just don't like the bad ­people."