'Time bomb': Delay in protections for transit workers could hamper hiring and system upgrades

Stacey Berry was recently on her way to work in uniform as a rail operator for the Chicago Transit Authority when a passenger on the city’s Red Line attacked her without provocation.

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

Berry ended up not showing up for her shift that day. Instead, she went to the hospital, where they gave her medicine to calm her down, and then returned to her house.

“Now, it’s like all the time,” Berry said of the frequency of such assaults on fellow transportation workers. “I am disappointed” that more has not been done.

Congress passed long-fought provisions aimed at improving transit workplace safety as part of its bipartisan infrastructure bill in November, 20 months after a pandemic caused a spike in traffic. violence against workers in all industries. One requirement: that transit agencies and unions come together 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 term. , which says it doesn’t give its members enough time to put together the necessary committees.

With bus drivers, subway operators, maintenance workers and others facing increasing risk of attacks, economists warn the delay could hamper the recruitment and retention of transit workers, causing the infrastructure bill $39 billion in new, less effective public transportation funding.

Workplace violence against transit workers “plays out in terrible ways,” said ZipRecruiter chief economist Julia Pollak. “It leads to fewer people using public transportation; so less money flowing into the system; then less resources to solve the problem”.

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

New Jersey Transit workers suffered 183 assaults in 2021 — triple the norm, according to leadership. Employees of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority constantly inform up to six attacks per week. And there are similar figures of Illinois, Utah, Arizona and other states.

During the pandemic, “it is well documented that people, for whatever reason, felt they could 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, said Greg Regan, chairman of the AFL-CIO Department of Transportation Operations.

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

The language in the infrastructure package, extracted from a separate independent invoice, directs transit agencies to set goals to improve worker safety by reducing the rate and severity of attacks, and to include workers and unions in their safety planning processes. It also requires agencies to collect assault data and submit it to FTA.

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

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

APTA, for its part, insists that the agencies need more time to comply with the requirements, about six more months to meet each deadline.

“APTA is working with the FTA and has expressed our concern that they may view transit agencies as barriers to implementation when implementing the new requirements for safety committees and other safety-related aspects” of the infrastructure law, “and We hope the FTA will take industry concerns into account when implementing these new requirements,” said Brian Alberts, APTA’s senior director of security and advisory services.

John Costa, who heads the 200,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, says the organization simply doesn’t want unions involved in the process.

The agencies are “what is holding us back, because they are fighting back,” Costa said. “They’re just angry and they’re backing down and they’re trying to take away any voice that we might have because they want to be the one person who dictates and can run the agency the way they think. ”

The Transportation Trades Department and unions like the ATU it represents have been pushing the FTA to move faster. In March, sent a letter to DOT and FTA stating that “our members should not be asked to wait another day to feel safe at work”.

They’ve also “done a lot more privately” in meetings with agency officials, Regan said.

The unions say there is no reason why the agency couldn’t implement certain regulations immediately after enactment. Officials point to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has taken several steps to address aviation workplace safety, as an example.

When flight attendants found themselves facing unruly, disruptive, and noncompliant passengers angered by mask requirements and other inconveniences of flying in the age of the pandemic, the FAA and Department of Justice quickly cracked down, issuing large fines and penalties. penalties.

The “approach that the FAA has taken, honestly, should be a lesson to the other agencies that have to deal with this problem,” Regan said. “The FAA has addressed this and they’re doing weekly reports, they’re enforcing the laws, they’re moving forward, they’re really bringing all the resources of the agency to deal with what is a legitimate problem in the airspace.”

Including workers in the traffic safety planning process is something that could be implemented immediately, Regan said. “Making sure that workers are part of the safety planning process shouldn’t be too much of an effort.”

FTA has told transit agencies that they must establish their safety committees by July 31. They will then have until December 31 to update their security plans accordingly.

There are some signs that the pressure campaign by transport workers’ unions may be bearing fruit. FTA published a notice in the Federal Register on Friday expanding his definition of what counts as assault: the first lawsuit listed in his March letter.

Lawmakers like Sen. sherrod brown (D-Ohio), who fought for the provisions to be included in the infrastructure bill, say they plan to ensure transit agencies meet NAFTA deadlines.

“Administrator [Nuria] Fernandez and the FTA have established important timelines for the inclusion of workers in safety planning,” a spokesperson for Brown said in a statement, adding that Brown “will work with the FTA and transit unions to ensure that the requirements are met.” be enacted quickly.”

With 4 in 10 transportation workers eligible to retire Within the next decade, the ability of local agencies to keep their workers safe will likely determine some of the infrastructure bill’s return on investment over the same period.

The historically tight job market will magnify the problem.

It’s “definitely a very big problem, especially because it’s such an attractive market for job seekers and people don’t need to be in miserable, stressful jobs,” Pollak said. “People are leaving high-stress jobs that feel toxic, miserable and underresourced. And they go to the kinds of jobs that don’t feel that way but are more flexible, more friendly, more enjoyable.”

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