Stop the spit! NYC’s transit union leaders demand state action to protect drivers

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano spoke at a rally in lower Manhattan on Feb. 12.
Photo by Ben Verde

During the COVID-19 pandemic, spitting is not just disgusting — it’s potentially lethal.

Now, leaders of New York’s transit unions are calling on state legislators to increase the penalties for those who spit on transit workers, saying the dangerous incidents have become too frequent.

As it stands, spitting on a transit worker is classified as a violation, which only results in a summons. Labor leaders are pushing the state to amend the penal code to up it to a misdemeanor, which can result in jail time.

“It’s deplorable, it’s disgusting, and it needs to stop,” said Transit Workers United Local 100 President Tony Utano at a rally outside City Hall Park on Friday. “We believe the way it may be deterred is to get this bill passed.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget includes a provision that would increase penalties for spitting on, shoving, or slapping a transit worker. Labor leaders are calling on legislators to support it.

“We’re going to work until we get this bill signed, it’s very important to show respect to the heroes,” Utano said. 

TWU leaders say spitting incidents in the subway are at roughly 200 a year, or about 4 a week. For transit workers who are spit on by unruly passengers, the incidents can be traumatizing, with the threat of disease during the pandemic adding an extra layer of fear. 

“I’m angry, I’m fearful. We can’t do anything, we feel helpless in the situation because we can’t fight back,” said subway conductor Terence Towler, who was poked in the eye while he stuck his head out of the train. “I shouldn’t have to come to work and fear for my life.”

It can also result in lost wages.

When Metro-North conductor Rob Singh was spit on this past September, he was tested for coronavirus and given HIV medication and was told to stay home for a month without pay to prevent infecting any of his co-workers. 

“We need better protection, and we need to be respected,” Singh said. “It’s a traumatic experience. It might sound simple, but being spit on is not something to joke about.”

Union leaders are also pushing for a larger police presence on subways and buses.

“We’ve got to get the old system back where it used to be that police roamed the subways, roamed the trains and walked back and forth, get on those buses and walk back and forth to show a presence,” Utano said. “Just the presence alone may detour some of these assaults and spits.”