If you drive a VTA bus, sooner or later someone is going to spit on you.
“It happens to everybody,” a VTA operator told San José Spotlight. The worker requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “If you’re there long enough, you’re guaranteed it’s going to happen to you—it’s absolutely horrible.”
Spit, threats, punches and sexual harassment are part of the daily experience for VTA bus drivers and light rail operators, according to workers and union officials who spoke with San José Spotlight. The South Bay public transit agency has taken steps to protect workers from assault, but some feel VTA hasn’t grasped how severe the problem has become, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we don’t start protecting frontline workers, we’ll never get ridership (back) because people don’t feel safe on public vehicles,” John Courtney, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265 told San José Spotlight. ATU represents the majority of VTA workers with over 1,500 members.
To highlight the urgent need for stronger protections, Courtney said some female operators recently reported incidents where male passengers ejaculated on them.
One VTA driver told San José Spotlight she experienced a similar situation last year. The driver was nearing the end of a night shift when she noticed the last passenger on her bus was masturbating in his seat. The driver, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said she didn’t have a barrier on her bus to protect her from attack.
“I grabbed my pack and went outside, I didn’t want to stay on the coach,” the driver said.
The driver said she contacted VTA and felt like the agency was reluctant to call law enforcement. She claims the passenger walked off her bus and disappeared before backup could arrive. The driver said she tries to put these kinds of incidents behind her, but it’s difficult to let it go.
“I’ve seen things that would totally upset an individual that has never seen things like this,” she said. “There’s just no respect.”
Addressing the issues
According to VTA data, 10 operator assaults have been reported since February, with four each in March and April. VTA spokesperson Sandra Bermudez told San José Spotlight operators requested criminal prosecution in every case. She didn’t elaborate on how they identify the individuals who assault the operators.
“VTA is working aggressively with the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute those who assault our employees,” she said. “We also seek restraining orders to keep known offenders away from our passengers and operators.”
Courtney claims VTA could reduce assaults if it permanently banned passengers who attack operators. VTA did not respond to a question requesting information about whether the agency bans people who assault operators. Courtney also said the agency disciplines employees who physically defend themselves from attack—a claim the agency denies.
Bermudez said VTA takes seriously the issue of assaults on operators.
“Although the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges we have experienced with unruly passengers, we are actively addressing these issues,” she said.
VTA has grappled with low ridership numbers since the onset of the pandemic. This problem grew worse after the agency shut down its light rail service for several months following a mass shooting at the Guadalupe rail yard on May 26, 2021. Last year, the agency projected expenses to exceed revenues by $6.9 million in fiscal year 2022. That gap is expected to increase over the next decade to reach $47.5 million by 2031.
VTA and ATU have a sub-committee that implements strategies to reduce assaults on operators. As an example, Bermudez said the committee recommended operator barriers on all buses, which has been carried out on 99% of VTA’s bus fleet. She added operators receive regular training and tools to de-escalate situations and that VTA employs a sheriff’s transit patrol unit and a contracted security team, Allied Universal, to protect operators. The sheriff’s website states its transit patrol division is contracted with VTA to safeguard VTA employees and riders.
Safety assaults unreported
Operator safety is a nationwide concern, and many of the problems aren’t new. In 2016, ATU published a survey about transit assaults that used input from hundreds of workers from different transit agencies. According to the results, more than 75% of operators agreed or strongly agreed they feared for their safety and security on a daily basis. More than 68% agreed with the statement that many assaults go unreported because operators believe nothing will be done.
Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and a San José Spotlight columnist, said barriers and the presence of closed-circuit television cameras help prevent assaults. Not having operators be responsible for enforcing fares also reduces the risk of physical attacks, she said.
Philbrick emphasized spitting is one of the biggest problems for transit operators in general. Philbrick told San José Spotlight she’s interviewed operators who struck and killed people with their vehicles who were more traumatized by being spit on by passengers.
“They felt it was so demeaning, just treating you like an animal, if you will,” Philbrick said. She added an estimated 50% of operators will have a traumatic incident at some point in their career, such as accidents or assaults.