New York, NY – For the first time in years, lawmakers, law enforcement, unions and all five district attorneys are in agreement on one thing: transit workers should not have to put up with being spat on while on the job.
Despite this being an issue for many years, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has pushed the act of straphangers intentionally expectorating on transit workers to the forefront, reinvigorating a bill that would help to prevent these types of ugly assaults from taking place again in the future.
“I’m happy they did it,” said Joe Branch, a bus driver who is also on the executive board of ATU local 1056, one of the transit unions that support this bill.
Over the past two years, there have been some 200 incidences involving customers hawking their saliva at transit workers, according to union leaders and the MTA. As of March, there have already been 150 cases.
“One is too many, and for it to happen so often is ridiculous,” said Branch. “It is one of the most degrading things you can do.”
Branch believes that people in heated situations purposefully spit on city workers because they know that, as professionals, they will not fight back while on the job.
Chairman Eddie Valente of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees (ACRE), a union that represents the train conductors, engineers and other commuter rail employees, agrees.
“This is a bad situation to be in during a pandemic,” said Valente. “It has also been a problem prior to that because there have been acts of harassment and minor assault, but there is nothing for the police to do.”
Under the current laws, if a police officer catches a rider in the act of spitting on a transit worker [a bus driver, conductor or subway operator] he or she will be charged with a violation and receive a fine that is equivalent to a parking ticket. If the straphanger manages to get away without being caught on camera, the case goes uninvestigated.
If the bill gets enough support from both chambers of the state Legislature, other transit personnel would be protected from similar abuses. Police would have the resources to further pursue such cases and arrest riders who spit or commit other low-level crimes against transit workers.
“It’s been treated as a minor violation,” said Valente. “I’m hoping the amendment to the existing law will act as a deterrent and will lead to more respect, instead of assaults of our workers.”
Valente does not believe that there needs to be more camera surveillance, because nearly every angle of a train and most of the every platform is covered. However, more uniformed police officers at sub-stations [small transit police stations] may help, he says.
“The police can do an investigation now and they can be charged,” said Valente. “They should hire more MTA Police to be on the ground at various locations so that they will be able to respond quickly.”
Anthony Aprea, a spokesman and government affairs liaison for ACRE understands and respects the city’s efforts in advocating for reduced sentencing for minor crimes. But he believes their should still be repercussions for those guilty of hurting or harassing transit workers to discourage future acts of violence.
“We should protect everyone’s rights in the city,” said Valente. “We just want to focus on these workers, who also wear a uniform, but get looked over. This is something that happens too often.”
Last year, according to Aprea, an MTA worker was spat on and had to undergo a full course of anti-HIV drugs, as well as a COVID-19 test. The side effects from the anti-HIV drugs cost the worker six weeks of work.
Many union heads and city officials hope the bill will be included in the upcoming State Budget and will pass before the Legislature goes on a break in June.
“ATU urges our state legislators to embrace and pass this protective legislation,” said Mark Henry, chair of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) NYS Legislative Conference Board and president/business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1056. “For too long, our members who operate and maintain NYC Transit bus routes serving Queens with some routes extending into The Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan and other bus and subway and rail workers, have endured being a victim of kicking, shoving, spitting, threats or other abuse.”
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz is on the same page as Henry.
“Spitting on a transit worker is more than repugnant, egregious conduct — it is dangerous with New York City still in grips of a pandemic. I whole-heartedly support the proposed amendment to raise this type of abuse from a violation to a misdemeanor,” said Katz. “I also hope the risk of going to jail would be a deterrent to anyone who would think of spitting on a transit worker. These essential workers deserve respect and should be able to do their jobs without fear.”
Interim MTA President Sarah Feinberg appreciates the support from the district attorney offices.
“The MTA is grateful to the city’s five DAs for standing united with us and our dedicated employees in calling for stricter penalties for spitting on transit workers – a disgusting and cowardly act of violence against selfless heroes who have kept New York moving throughout this pandemic,” said Feinberg. “We urge the Legislature to approve the measure in the final state budget.”
The MTA is also advocating for measures to aggressively track and report incidents. The agency wants to expand its subway security network and wants legislation that would also include 1,000 additional officers in the transit system.
“Any MTA worker would tell you a spit in the face is worse than a punch,” said Valente.