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Bus Driver Union Calls for Better Workplace Protections

Connecticut’s Southeast Area Transit District bus drivers are calling for improved workplace safety protections amid a rise in assaults against bus operators during the coronavirus pandemic.

(TNS) — Connecticut's Southeast Area Transit District bus driver Sendra Childs said at least twice a week a passenger will curse at her or call her a name.

Childs, president of ATU Local 1209, which represents transit workers, said it happens to other drivers even more frequently. She intervenes at least three times a day to defuse situations and help the passenger and the bus driver.

Sometimes the situations arise when a passenger is told they can't bring a certain type of container on the bus, when they are asked to please pull their mask up, or they are reminded how much the fare is, she said. Sometimes it happens when she is trying to help passengers, but they don't understand she is trying to do that.

"It's very stressful," Childs said in a phone interview Tuesday. "You're just always on your guard because you're just always looking over your shoulder."

In a news release this week, the union said there "has been a rise in assaults against bus operators for simply enforcing safety regulations like the federal mask mandate on public transit" during the coronavirus pandemic, and called on SEAT to "provide better protection and stronger workplace violence prevention measures to ensure the safety of transit workers and riders."

The union cited concerns following incidents of violence against transit workers nationwide, including when a person shot and killed nine co-workers at a rail yard in San Jose, Calif., in May.

The SEAT union also raised concerns about an incident last month in which an employee saw that a co-worker had brought a firearm to a SEAT garage, and the union said the management should have taken immediate action.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said the incident did not rise to the level of calling the police. He said the employee, a technician, did not brandish or display the firearm or threaten anyone, and the employee was working late and felt the need for protection. He said management immediately addressed the issue through its disciplinary process but did not feel termination of the employee was warranted.

In the past, an employee who had made threats had been terminated, Carroll said.

Calling for Better Protections

Driver Michelle Scovish said that about three weeks ago, a woman was exiting the bus and asking for directions and became irate and hostile within seconds when she wasn't getting answers. Scovish said the woman raised her fist twice and swung at her, but did not physically touch Scovish.

Scovish said police had the passenger removed but did not arrest her. Scovish said she was relieved for the day and asked if she needed therapy, but SEAT did not ban the passenger from riding the bus for a period, such as a week or a few months.

"Our biggest concern right now is we don't feel like we're being protected in hostile situations," Scovish said.

The union is advocating for "better bus shields for drivers, more police presence at transit centers, and a better alert system to contact in an emergency," according to the release.

SEAT bus driver Curtis Austin said drivers don't feel safe, and he particularly feels for female drivers, who he said get threatened or called vulgar words by passengers every other day. He said he himself was called into the office by his superiors after he came to the aid of a female driver who was getting harassed by a passenger.

Driver Brinky Hodges said he recently has been called a name by a rider and last year his life was threatened. He said telling customers "no" is the trigger, and the situations often arise when bus drivers try to enforce the rules.

Hodges said he would like SEAT to take care of its drivers, because they are "the backbone" of the bus operation. "We are the ones out front."

Childs said the issues began about two and a half years ago, and she thinks the management is not paying enough attention to the topic of driver safety. She said while the issues started before the pandemic, she has noticed them getting worse and passengers are angry because bus drivers are asking them to put masks on.

SEAT Response

Carroll said SEAT is aware of verbal assaults, but not physical assaults against drivers. He said the transit district takes safety very seriously and has taken appropriate responses to the incidents it has been aware of.

He said all of SEAT's heavy-duty buses are equipped with driver barriers, but if there are improvements available, SEAT will look at them. He said SEAT already has several emergency notification systems on the buses, but if there is a better alert system available, SEAT also will look at that. He also said SEAT has discussed the situation with local law enforcement agencies.

Carroll said drivers are at times "coached" regarding situations involving passengers, but there have not been disciplinary issues such as reprimands in their files.

He said the transit district will work to provide more de-escalation training for drivers.

He said SEAT is in the customer service business and wants to encourage people to take the bus but does not tolerate abusive behavior against drivers.

"We certainly take our employees' safety seriously, and we do everything we can to ensure their safety," Carroll said. "Unfortunately, in this case they don't feel like we're doing enough, and we'll certainly work to try to improve that. We're trying to balance safety and customer service and service reliability and the resources that we have."

(c)2021 The Day (New London, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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