SMART Transportation Division Bus Department Vice President Calvin Studivant and New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol spent a significant time brainstorming ways to protect members in Sabol’s state last year.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic had added even more potential risk to our members working on New Jersey Transit (NJT) and other carriers. Beyond their daily duties of keeping things moving, the need for workers to enforce COVID safety measures increased the potential for conflict and violent incidents with dangerous outcomes for workers, riders and even the public.
Two assaults on NJT workers drew headlines through the autumn. A union tracking violence against NJT workers reported more than 130 instances of workers being attacked. Something needed to be done.
In response, Studivant and Sabol, in conjunction with SMART-TD legislative and legal leadership, developed and presented what became the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act.
On Jan. 10, that legislation was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.
“I’m very proud of what this law accomplishes in protecting transportation workers in our state,” Sabol said. “It took the help of many people on both our side, including National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and TD Designated Legal Counsel Safety Coordinator Larry Mann, the persistence of other labor organizations, and a receptive, bipartisan group of legislators to get this done.”
Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Dist. 14) and state Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Dist. 18) were the driving forces behind the versions of the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act that ran concurrently in rapid fashion through both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature. On the Republican side, State Sen. Robert R. Singer (R-Dist. 30) also championed the bill that gained massive support from both parties in the Senate.
The Senate version, S-4071, passed unanimously Dec. 20 on a 39-0 vote. The Assembly version, A-6013, passed unanimously with a 76-0 vote the same day.
“We cannot thank Assemblyman Benson enough for his diligence and his amazing effort in putting in the time to make this legislation succeed,” Sabol said after the bill’s signing. “He spent hours engaging fellow legislators with in-depth discussions as he proposed and helped to advance the legislation. The same goes again with state Sens. Diegnan and Singer, who were instrumental in initiating and retaining the overwhelming bipartisan support the law gained, and, of course, Gov. Murphy.”
The Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act upgrades the penalty for all assaults on a motorbus or autobus operator, the operator’s supervisor and a rail passenger employee. It also empowers NJT, motorbus companies and all rail passenger service providers to ban riders from their transportation services for up to one year if the person commits an assault on a motorbus operator, the operator’s supervisor or a rail passenger employee.
If a deadly weapon was used during the assault, the rider may be banned for life.
“Transportation workers are far too often subjected to vicious attacks by irate passengers for simply doing their jobs,” said Benson, who serves as chairperson of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee. “Our bus and rail employees must be protected as they fulfill their critical duties on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of commuters in our state.”
“This bill, while long overdue, is right on time,” Vice President Studivant said. “The collaborative efforts to secure this piece of legislation is a testament to the men and women who face adverse conditions on a daily basis for simply doing their jobs of moving the people of N.J.”
“Congratulations to Vice President Studivant, SLD Sabol and the New Jersey State Legislative Board for their outstanding work, and thanks to Larry Mann for his guidance in this victory,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “This legislation could be a great blueprint for other states to follow suit.”
Of note, Gov. Murphy also signed S.771, a second piece of legislation expanding workers’ compensation coverage to include injuries that occurs in employer parking lots. Both SMART-TD and the New Jersey Council of Safety and Health (COSH) supported the bill.
Legislation championed by SMART Transportation Division New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol to protect transportation workers passed unanimously through a state Senate committee Nov. 8.
The bill (S-4071) or the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act, was introduced by state Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) in response to recent incidents in which two NJ Transit (NJT) employees were assaulted for trying to enforce a federal coronavirus mask mandate.
In testimony before the committee, Sabol made it clear to senators that it was past time to toughen enforcement after a pair of violent events aboard NJT trains.
The legislation “is critical to all transit workers, as well as the public,” Sabol said. “I’m sure all of you have seen in the news assaults of public transportation workers are on the rise at an alarming rate. This is out of control at this point. I think we really need to look at addressing it in some way here in New Jersey.”
In October, an NJT rail passenger pulled a knife on a conductor who asked him to wear a mask in Bergen County, according to NJ.com. The passenger was arrested and charged with assault.
Two months earlier, a rail passenger was jailed after he launched into a racist tirade then got into a physical confrontation with an NJT conductor aboard a Hoboken-bound train, NJ.com reported.
S-4071 upgrades the penalty for all assaults on a motorbus or autobus operator, the operator’s supervisor, and a rail passenger employee. It also empowers NJT, motorbus companies and all rail passenger service providers to ban riders from their transportation services for up to one year if the person commits assault on a motorbus operator, the operator’s supervisor, or a rail passenger employee.
If a deadly weapon was used during the assault, the rider may be banned for life.
The legislation also requires NJT and motorbus companies to:
Equip each bus and rail and light rail vehicle with a communication system that allows the operator to alert the company or NJ TRANSIT and appropriate law enforcement agencies when the operator is in distress.
Coordinate with law enforcement and transit police to help protect bus operators and rail employees on potentially problematic routes.
Establish an employee assistance program for bus operators and rail employees that have been assaulted.
Provide periodic violence and mental health training to bus operators and rail employees.
The measures are designed to reduce acts of violence against transit employees and to provide transit workers with techniques for deescalating potentially violent situations.
Diegnan, chair of the N.J. Senate Transportation Committee, said the bill was crafted with labor and carrier’s safety concerns in mind.
“We all have the same purpose,” Diegnan said during the committee meeting. “We want to protect these folks and at the same time not unintentionally harm the carriers.”
The bill moves on to the full state Senate for consideration.
As President Joe Biden appeared Oct. 25 at the New Jersey Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, N.J., it was SMART Transportation Division New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams (GCA-770), a New Jersey Transit engineer, who set the stage for the president’s speech.
SMART-TD New Jersey State Legislative Board Vice Chairperson Joseph Williams introduces President Joe Biden at the NJT Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny on Oct. 25.
Williams, the legislative representative of Local 800, a member of our union since February 2017 and a fourth-generation railroader, is a native of New Jersey with three children. His 25-year rail career began as a diesel mechanic in the 1990s, and he became an engineer in 1999. He’s also risen to become vice chairperson of his GCA.
In his introduction of Biden, Williams thanked N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy and N.J. Transit’s Kevin Corbett for their work in helping NJT improve service as well as U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski for his work on Congressional infrastructure efforts in the U.S. House.
“I personally believe that the current infrastructure bill is important to New Jersey Transit rail operations, the residents of New Jersey and our neighboring states,” Williams said. “The funding would rebuild and modernize our aging transportation network. The rehabilitation of our system will help to preserve and create new railroad jobs.”
Improvements to stations funded by the infrastructure effort also would remove impediments to access for N.J. Transit users, while the Gateway Project expansion would smooth out regional network challenges, Williams said.
“Our bridge and tunnel system into and out of New York is antiquated and unreliable,” Williams said. “Our general riding public that depends on this system to get to and from work deserves better.”
In his remarks, Biden, touring New Jersey as the bipartisan infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better agenda work through Congress, paid particular attention to the middle-class jobs created and the need for improvement in the nation’s roads, rails and bridges.
“We invested in ourselves and in our people, our families,” President Biden said. “Somewhere along the way, we took our eyes off the ball. Our infrastructure used to be the best in the world.”
Now, he said, 12 other nations are considered to have better infrastructure thanks to years of implementation of failed “trickle-down” strategies and at least a decade without a transformative bill to address deterioration has not helped.
One example familiar to the president’s audience at the speech is the New Jersey Portal Bridge, which is being targeted for replacement. Once considered “state of the art,” Biden said it’s an impediment, even as it continues to be what he described as “the busiest rail span in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s also prone to having the tracks misaligned with a sledgehammer needing to be used to set things to rights, he said.
The Portal project is just one item in an agenda that Biden promised would reinvigorate the nation’s railroad system and create 8,000 union jobs.
“I’m a train guy,” Biden said. “Because it’s also the single most significant way we can deal with air pollution and the single most significant way we can deal with global warming.
“With my infrastructure bill, we are going to make sure that projects like this are only the beginning … We are going to make the largest investment in public transportation in the history of America, replacing transit vehicles that are past their useful life and make the most-significant investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.
On Sept. 14, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law S-2380, which retroactively protects the state’s essential workers, including SMART Transportation Division bus members, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Essential employees’ workers compensation claims are routinely rejected by employers because the employees can’t prove they contracted COVID-19 at their place of work. This law shifts the burden of proof to the employer in state workers’ compensation claims for essential workers who interact with the public and contract COVID-19 during the declared state of emergency.
“This is the strongest law in the country for essential workers,” said New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol, who worked in conjunction with the state AFL-CIO in order to get legislators to pass and Murphy to sign the bill. “The governor and state legislators have taken strong action to protect TD members and all of our essential workers who were and continue to face the risk of being exposed to COVID during the course of doing their jobs.”
Most of the laws that were booked in states involving protecting essential workers nationwide were simply executive orders — limited in scope covering just police, fire and medical workers. The CARES Act passed in the early months of the pandemic only included financial coverage of testing for the virus. The New Jersey law covers all workers who are out of work because of COVID-19 who miss an extended period of time from their job, Sabol said.
“It covers the medical part of everything,” Sabol said. “If you had a person who got sick from COVID and you were out for weeks, it’s now covered by workers’ compensation.”
The bill covers the period from March 9, when Gov. Murphy declared a state emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic.
S-2380/A-3999 was sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, Sens. Nick Scutari, D-20th District, Robert Singer, R-30th District, and Linda Greenstein, D-14th District, and by Assemblymen Thomas Giblin, D-34th District, and John Burzichelli, D-3rd District, and Assemblywomen Carol Murphy, D-7th District, and Joann Downey, D-11th District.
A second bill — S-2476 — is being considered that enhances death benefits for workers who passed from COVID-19.
David Rasmussen, legislative representative for SMART Transportation Division Local 60 (Newark, N.J.), has been nominated as the rail labor representative on the New Jersey Transit (NJT) board by Gov. Phil Murphy.
“A strong NJ TRANSIT Board is critical to ensuring a leadership team whose sole focus is on restoring safety, reliability, and accountability to commuters,” Murphy said in a March 21 news release. “I thank the Legislature, the Labor community, and our colleagues in transportation for their input, and I look forward to working with the new board members.”
Rasmussen has been Local 60’s legislative rep. since late 2015. Prior officer positions the 53-year-old from Woodbridge has held include vice chairperson of GCA-610 and vice local chairperson of LCA-610. He is among seven new nominees to the board who still must be confirmed by the state’s Senate.
“I feel I will be an asset to the board as I will bring my nearly 30 years’ experience as a conductor at NJT. Through my career I’ve worked at nearly every terminal and at yard facilities within NJT. I have also worked all types of services that govern our responsibilities,” Rasmussen said. “I feel this will serve the board well, as the other members can lean on me and my experience to identify best possible solutions to resolve any problem, issues or changes the board may be considering.”
The addition of the new board members was part of a restructuring of the transit agency, which is dealing with financial pressures and a shortage of engineers that happened late last year. Murphy’s signing of the overhaul in late December was a win for the N.J. State Legislative Board.
“This piece of legislation adds the largest rail union (SMART TD) to the Board of Directors at NJT. We advocated for this for two years,” New Jersey State Legislative Director Ron Sabol said at the time of the signing. “This was a huge undertaking by our office, and it has paid off.”
Among the changes brought about by the bill:
Five new positions are created on the transit agency’s board, bringing the board from eight to 13 members.
Board composition will go from four to eight public members and increases the number of labor representatives to two — one to be appointed from the labor organization that represents a plurality of bus operations workers and one to represent the labor organization that represents a plurality of rail operations workers, which is SMART TD.
A chief ethics officer will be employed to address whistleblower complaints and a customer advocate would compose reports about on-time performance and other customer-centered activities.
The board will have to hold at least 10 public meetings annually with many at times so commuters can attend.
A residency requirement is waived for certain employees.