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SEPTA drivers are increasingly victim to abuse and assaults. Some say the agency isn’t doing enough to protect them.

Two days before Thanksgiving in 2021, SEPTA operator Kyle Williams steered the Route G bus to the curb on Oregon Avenue near South 23rd Street and swung open the doors.

A man stepped aboard and blew past without a second look.

Williams says he asked the passenger to pay the $2.50 fare. “He started cursing me with all kinds of names — the N-word, everything under the sun.”

Pulling the bus over, Williams told the man to get off. In response, he spat in the driver’s face.

“It was the most disgusting and disrespectful thing,” Williams said. “I’d rather you hit me in the face than spit on me.”

Saliva is a common weapon used against drivers: Passengers spat on SEPTA operators 242 times from the beginning of 2017 through April 2022, according to the transit agency’s incident reports.

Bus operators and other transit workers are alone as they pilot 40-foot behemoths through the streets of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. They’ve been protected since the pandemic by plexiglass shields but little else — and vulnerable to angry outbursts and violence.

SEPTA bus and trolley operators have endured verbal abuse and an increasing number of assaults from riders over the past decade, with a notable spike in attacks at the onset of the pandemic, according to the transit agency and Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents operators.

Some U.S. data show problems were mounting before the coronavirus, however. The rate of transit-operator assault quadrupled from 2009 through November 2020, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

Experts believe that the number of attacks was actually higher because FTA only recorded incidents in which operators sought medical attention for injuries, and some workers who are assaulted don’t tell their supervisors.

And it gets much more serious than spitting. On July 14, for instance, police said a man boarded a Route 57 SEPTA bus in North Philadelphia just after 5:30 a.m. He did not pay the fare and got into an argument with the operator, saying, “I should shoot you,” according to police accounts. About a block later, the suspect hopped off and fired a gun in the direction of the operator. The bullet lodged in the windshield; no one was injured.

Operator assaults have been rising across the nation and in Canada, spurring transit unions to demand safety measures and authorities to scramble for possible solutions.

People have shot bus operators, punched them, spat on them and hit them with baseball bats, metal pipes, and, in one New York case last year, a tree branch. Operators have been splashed with coffee, beer, and urine. In Detroit in 2020, an irate rider attacked a bus operator with fast-food nachos and her fists, causing the bus to crash into a street sign.

The result of this rising abuse has been a shortage of bus and trolley operators, which can lead to unpredictable schedules, further aggravating riders and causing revenue loss at a time when transit agencies badly need the money. And some operators say that the agency is not doing enough to protect them.

‘The social climate has changed’

Sociologists and psychologists (not to mention millions of everyday people) have observed that society’s fuse seems to have shortened during the collective and personal traumas caused by COVID-19. Inconveniences like a late bus can assume outsized importance. People get angrier at slights, real and perceived.

And “the system has been taken under siege” by people experiencing mental illness, homelessness, or drug addiction, said Brian Pollitt, president of TWU Local 234, which represents SEPTA transit workers. He said confrontations are unpredictable and heighten the stress of an eight-hour shift behind the wheel.

“The job now comes with a lot more than it did when I started here. The social climate has changed,” said Pollitt, who began his career as a SEPTA bus operator 33 years ago.

Williams, a 21-year SEPTA veteran, said nothing happened to the G bus passenger who spat on him. But Williams was suspended without pay and spent two months fighting, with representation from the union, to keep his job during three administrative hearings in which his actions were examined in detail.

Williams said he pushed the assailant toward the steps at the front door of the bus. Under transit agency rules operators are not allowed to confront or touch passengers, or to get off the bus to pursue them.

The man was not injured, Williams said, and the spitter stayed to give a statement to SEPTA supervisors who arrived after he reported the incident to the control room, which is required.

In Williams’ view, SEPTA showed no concern for his well-being and made no attempt to consider the provocation of being spit on as a possible mitigating factor. He said he reacted instinctively to defend himself.

“I thought damn, why y’all trying to treat me like this? … They’d rather have me just sit there and get beaten to death.”

Finally in January 2022, SEPTA and the union settled the case: Williams could keep his job but he wouldn’t get back pay.

Now, he says he understands why it’s been so hard for transit systems to hire new bus operators. ”Why would you want to work for somebody that doesn’t have your back?” Williams said.

SEPTA officials are empathetic. “Our employees are people’s mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. They’re Little League coaches and church pastors and everything else,” said Scott Sauer, SEPTA’s chief operating officer. “Without them, the city grinds to a halt. We want them to be safe and treated with respect.”

A severe driver shortage

Transit agency managers and union officials are working together and say they are making progress on ways to protect operators from assault.

Increasing danger and the fear of violence have helped make operating a bus — traditionally considered a ticket to the middle class ― less attractive for many people. Many veteran operators are beginning to retire and some quit well short of that, burned out by the stresses and indignities of the job.

The result: A severe shortage of operators.

Bus operator pay has not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of living, according to a study of the operator shortage by the Transit Center, a New York think tank. Scheduling is rigid and more desirable shifts are awarded based on seniority. It’s not uncommon for a rookie operator to have a couple of day shifts, a split day and a night or overnight shift in the same week. The shortage also means mandatory overtime.

After a string of crashes involving buses and trolleys this summer, SEPTA acknowledged that it was looking into staffing levels, and operator fatigue, as possible contributors. In all, there were eight major collisions involving SEPTA vehicles within 20 days, beginning July 21.

Over the last three years, the number of SEPTA bus operators declined 15%, from 2,614 drivers to 2,221, according to the transit agency’s payroll records. There was a similar decline among trolley operators, though there are fewer of those jobs.

SEPTA is recruiting and training bus and trolley operators as fast as it can, but TWU Local 234 general counsel Bruce Bodner noted that 255 operators with three or fewer years of service had quit the transit agency as of mid July.

“That’s a retention problem,” Bodner said.

Pollitt, the union president, said rookie operators can better their pay of roughly $20 an hour by using the commercial drivers licenses required to drive a bus or trolley to take more lucrative positions with regional trucking firms. That move also means a job with more stable hours and fewer of the risks transit operators face dealing directly with the public.

The operator shortage has consequences for transit riders and agencies. With too few people to run the vehicles, SEPTA and its counterparts cannot provide the frequent service needed to attract riders who stopped using transit during the pandemic.

Because of that lost revenue, and federal pandemic aid running out soon, most transit agencies, including SEPTA, are facing fiscal crises.

Policing public transit

In Philadelphia, contract negotiations with SEPTA began July 12, and TWU leaders are pushing for more protection for their members and the riding public.

Specifically, they’ve stressed the need for more police on the Market-Frankford El and Broad Street Line, and suggest asking state law enforcement for reinforcements.

“We don’t want to turn people into criminals but this is a necessity to bring riders back,” Bodner said.

Buses and trolleys, however, are hard to police. SEPTA has about 1,400 separate buses traveling 125 routes, every day of the year.

Still, union leaders say, there must be more arrests and prosecutions of those who assault drivers.

Already, SEPTA is installing automated announcements to remind people of the $2.50 fare as they are boarding, in hopes of increasing compliance and preventing attacks. SEPTA’s Sauer said it was TWU’s idea.

The two groups have, at times, been adversarial on operator safety. Devin Knox, a Route 37 driver, was fired after a December 2021 incident when he left the bus to chase a rider who spit in his face, then scuffled with him. Knox, who declined to talk for this story, got his job back in July 2022 in an arbitration hearing.

The rule is for safety, Sauer said. “Once you leave the vehicle, you’re exposed,” he said. “I’m really afraid of having to attend somebody’s funeral.”

Another thing that may help: Beginning this year, agencies must report to FTA things such as verbal abuse, interference and intimidation, not just attacks causing physical injuries.

Ongoing trauma

Out of the corner of her eye, Tiffany Monroe noticed the guy sitting on the front top step of her packed Route 10 trolley as she slowed for the 30th Street Station stop, headed east.

People boarding struggled to wriggle past the man, she said. The car emptied a little so she figured he’d move.

“Excuse me sir, can you find yourself a seat? People can’t get through,” Monroe, 25, remembered saying as they approached 15th Street Station. She repeated it. Maybe, she thought, he couldn’t hear, so she tapped him on the shoulder and asked again.

Five seconds later he snapped.

The man cursed and pulled out a gun, pointing it at her abdomen. “He then asked me, ‘Now what you want to say? …. I got the gun, so now what you want to do?’” Monroe recalled. He spat on her and then got off the trolley.

On the platform, she said, the man heard her warning riders, then fired two rounds in the air as she closed the trolley doors. He couldn’t pry open the doors so he used the butt of the gun to bang on the glass until it broke, she recalled. The trolley gathered speed before he could stick a hand through.

In the aftermath, Monroe was an exception to the experience of most operators who are assaulted. First, the attacker was arrested and charged with several felonies. (Court records show he’s in jail on $500,000 bail but has yet to come to trial.)

Second, she was awarded workers compensation, got therapy and eventually was hired for an office job in SEPTA’s control room at the Market Street headquarters. Monroe is relieved she never has to drive again. But the incident is still with her.

“I am definitely way better, but … sometimes, like when I hear fireworks or a car motor pops or something, I’m terrified. When I even see trolleys I get a real bad feeling.”


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