We've Got Your Back - TWU Wins Safety Measures For Vulnerable Bus Operators
October 19, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
Hundreds of protective new partitions designed to help thwart the kinds of heinous attacks on New York City bus drivers like the one that occurred just a few weeks ago when a man using a syringe stabbed driver Mark Anthony Salandy in the shoulder as he drove his B68 bus in Brooklyn, will soon be installed in 40 percent of buses rolling throughout local lines.
TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen joined rank and file members, as well as State Senator Eric Adams outside the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on October 18, to celebrate the MTA's decision to finally expand the use of partitions far beyond the roughly 700 presently in use.
"The promise of the partitions occurred back in 2008 when a bus operator was stabbed to death on Utica Avenue on the B46 bus," Samuelsen told LaborPress. "We've gone after them [MTA] aggressively in every forum possible, and now we've got the guarantee that they're going to bring another 1300 partitions on. So, they'll have roughly two-thousand buses equipped out of 4600 that work the streets by December. That's substantial progress relative to the initial slowness of their response."
In addition to the 1,000 buses slated to soon be retrofitted with protective new partitions, the MTA will reportedly also purchase 300 new city buses with barriers already pre-installed in an overall effort to make the safety measure standard on most mass transit vehicles.
"I think this is a good start," 10-year bus operator Louis Marrero said. "It's preventative. I'm just happy that they're [MTA] going to try and atone for not doing anything for all these years. We're on the front lines every day doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the city."
According to officials, about 80 percent of all attacks on bus drivers come from behind their normal seated position. The new partitions allow free access to the fare box, but also wrap around drivers to protect them where they're most vulnerable.
Samuelsen acknowledged that partitions are not foolproof, but he maintained that the bizarre September 24 attack on Salandy would never have been successful had a partition been installed on his bus.
"That lunatic would never have been able to assault our member in such a grotesque manner," the union chief said.
The TWU Local 100 chief also said that attacks on bus operators have become "an epidemic" and accused the NYPD and the MTA of keeping the reality of three to four bus operators being assaulted each week "a dirty little secret."
"They want to act as if it's not going on,' Samuelsen said. "The company [MTA] has made efforts to not categorize everything as an assault."
For instance, on the same day Salandy's life was turned inside-out, Samuelsen said a female bus operator working in East New York, Brooklyn had to be hospitalized after being bashed in the head as she helped a wheelchair-bound rider disembark.
"This guy got impatient, barreled through the back door and slammed her right in the head with it," Sameuelsen said. "She had to go to the hospital. But neither the police nor the MTA counted that as an assault. They say that's not a criminal action. But if a cop got smashed in the head by the back door of a bus the district attorney would have justified a shooting incident. I'm being somewhat facetious - but they love to downplay the attacks against our bus operators."
State Senator Adams echoed the union president's sentiments.
"The police are protecting their stats to make sure they don't have a high-level of assaults, State Senator Adams said. "And the MTA is protecting their revenues. But no one is actually going out and protecting drivers."
Both Adams and Samuelsen believe that in addition to installing protective new barriers, a uniformed deterrent on city buses is also now warranted.
"Without a doubt," Adams said. "By putting a uniformed presence on the bus, you get a two-for. Your protect your revenue and you protect the driver. I think the new number of partitions is starting the process of shifting to protecting what we ought to be protecting. You can't put profit over public safety."
The MTA already utilizes the services of on board monitors along select bus service routes in an effort to stop fare evaders. These so-called "Eagle Squads" are now set to ride local lines as well, and could help to further deter assaults on bus operators.
"The partition is not enough," Samuelsen said. "There needs to be cops on the buses. The Transit Police Bureau only patrols the subway. They leave the patrol of buses up to the precinct commanders, and the commanders don't care. It is a big step forward to get an agreement out of the MTA that they're going to use these Eagle Squads."
According to Samuelsen, the less-than $2,000 cost of outfitting a bus with a partition has always been a major roadblock to their wider implementation.
"The irony of it is when a bus driver gets hurt, they go out on Workers' Compensation for eight, ten months," Samuelsen said. "They could buy 30 partitions with the amount of money they're kicking out for an assaulted bus operator. But the MTA is infamously pennywise and dollar foolish."
Veteran bus operator Jose Rivera welcomed the promise of more protective partitions, declaring, "We're moving forward."
Earlier this month, Rivera identified Shelwyn Patt, 53, as the suspect wanted in Salandy's assault - but only after driving his B67 bus for more than an hour from McDonald Avenue & Cortelyou Road to Downtown Brooklyn with the alleged madman practically breathing down his neck.
"At first, I didn't pick him out, but as customers started coming out, I saw him sitting behind me about five, six feet away on the right side of the bus," Rivera said. "He just kept sizing me up in the mirror. As soon as we got to Downtown Brooklyn the bus was pretty much empty and he's still there looking around. I really don't know what his intentions were. I had a million-and-one questions screaming in my head. I was sweating already and nervous, but I had to maintain composure. Because who knows what this guy was capable of doing right there and then? Luckily, I saw a squad car coming and I flagged him down - slowly. They came and apprehended him."
The majority of recent attacks on bus operators have reportedly occurred in Brooklyn or the Bronx. That's where another female bus operator named Marlena was beaten so savagely after instructing a rider that her leashed dog was not permitted on the bus, that she suffered serious nerve damage to one of her eyes.
"It was an absolutely grotesque beating," Samuelsen said. "The photographs of the bus operator after the assault were just heartbreaking."