WASHINGTON - A group of Metrobus drivers are protesting what they say are increasingly unsafe conditions on the job. Bus operators, supervisors and Local 689 union members gathered Friday morning at the Minnesota Avenue NE Metrobus station to express their concerns over several recent attacks on bus drivers, but Metro called the protest an unauthorized labor action.
There were delays on the X2 line throughout the morning commute as a result of what Metro tweeted was an "operational problem." Union representatives say the X2 line delays are a result of drivers asking for a police officer or supervisor aboard their buses, but they claim instead, Metro is deeming their request a refusal to work, and they're being disciplined.
The protest comes after a woman threw a cup of urine on a DC Metrobus driver as she exited an X2 line bus last Saturday. Police say 38-year-old Opal Brown was riding on a bus traveling near Minnesota Avenue NE and Benning Road NE when she doused the driver with urine that was in a purple cup.
According to court documents, Brown was about to exit the bus when the driver told the suspect to "Have a nice day." Brown responded saying, "Are you talking to me?" before throwing the urine on the female driver.
After Metro Transit Police released surveillance video of the incident, Brown turned herself in. She was charged with misdemeanor assault, and pleaded not guilty in court on Thursday. A judge ordered her to undergo a mental evaluation and stay away from the X2 line. Brown is due in court again later this month.
Brown covered her face and refused to speak to reporters after she walked out of the courthouse on Thursday. The judge said he could not keep her held because this was a simple assault and not a felony charge.
Court documents say Brown admitted to committing the assault and told police she tossed the urine because she was mad at the driver and hates Metro. She also wrote an apology letter and had it in her possession when she was taken into custody by police.
At Friday's protest, union representative Jackie Jeter told FOX 5 WMATA has expressed no regard for bus operators' concerns despite drivers asking for police protection aboard their buses. She claims three buses did not leave the Minnesota Avenue station Friday morning as scheduled because Metro took drivers out of service after they asked for police protection, deeming them unwilling to work.
The union has asked D.C., Maryland and Virginia to make it a felony charge when someone assaults a transit operator or worker. It also asked for the person in charge of Metro's bus operations to step down.
WMATA released the following statement on Friday's protest:
"ATU Local 689, the union representing Metrobus Operators, is currently engaged in an unauthorized and potentially unlawful labor action that is significantly impacting riders on the X2 line. The stated goal by union leadership is to draw attention to safety concerns, specifically bus operator assaults, following an incident on Saturday. This is a subject on which Metro and the union agree: Absolutely no one should be assaulted simply for doing their job. However, we disagree with impacting Metro customers who are simply trying to get to work and school by Metrobus Operators refusing to provide bus service in a disruptive and unlawful job action.
Metro and the union also agree that laws need to be strengthened to help protect bus operators, including enhanced penalties for anyone who assaults a frontline transit worker.
We should note that, working with the Union, Metro has taken several steps to address the issue of bus operator safety. For example, Metro Transit Police now have nearly 40 Transit Police officers specifically assigned to Metrobus. These officers are embedded with our bus operators at Shepherd Parkway and Northern bus divisions with the goal of sharing information with operators about where problems are being encountered. Additionally, more than a third of Metrobuses have now been equipped with protective shields and all new buses will arrive from the factory with a safety shield already installed. In addition, every Metrobus has been equipped with digital cameras that are always recording, as well as communication equipment that allows the operator to call for help with the push of a button."