Detroit bus service remains halted indefinitely amid worries over COVID-19, violence

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Bus service in the city is suspended indefinitely after day-long talks failed to settle a labor dispute that prompted Detroit Department of Transportation drivers to walk off the job early Friday citing threats of violence on city buses and the ongoing risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, told The Detroit News that the two sides spent the better part of 10 hours in talks Friday before the city administration made the call to pick it up again on Monday. Service, he said, will be suspended until further notice. 

"The city doesn't have our back," Tolbert said. "We've done all we can, and we're being spit on and abused and never mind the verbal abuse. They (drivers) are disrespected on a level that's unimaginable."

Tolbert said he was willing to continue discussions "until we got something resolved." The proposals brought forward by the city so far — including a memorandum of understanding to train all drivers on de-escalation techniques within 45 days — isn't enough, he said. 

"We're still in the predicament we're in," he added. "In my opinion, you're throwing it back in my lap."

The city, in a statement early Friday, announced the service shutdown and the goal "to get buses back on the road as soon as possible."

Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said drivers informed city leadership of "some recent incidents that have them concerned for their safety."

"Right now, we are listening to their concerns and will be working closely with our transit police force and (police) Chief (James) Craig to reach an agreement as quickly as possible and new protocols — including de-escalation strategies — to get our drivers back to work as quickly as possible," Berry said in a statement early Friday. 

Detroit's administration did not immediately comment on the status of the negotiations.

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, said she's never seen the prospect of a multiple-day shutdown in service in her 15 years as a transportation advocate. It'll be a major blow, she said, for the essential workers and riders who need it most.

"There are tens of thousands of people who depend on DDOT every day to get to work, to appointments, to everywhere they need to go," she said. "An entire weekend without service could be really devastating."

Owens, who also had been a longtime rider of the system prior to the outbreak, said drivers have raised issues with unruly riders periodically over the years but the stresses that come along with the coronavirus have escalated tensions. 

"It's hard for a driver to want to deal with this," she said. "I really do hope the city is looking very seriously at increasing the pay in addition to whatever safety measures they need."

Tolbert said his drivers have to "fend for your life" just for asking riders to wear masks amid the pandemic. 

"It's getting to the point with COVID and all the other pressures ... all of these things are just piling up. I've got people quitting on a daily basis," he said.

The union, he said, is determined to get some measures in place to ensure driver safety as well as assurances that they won't fall subject to discipline or dismissal. 

"Somebody has to come speak on our behalf, and there has to be measures put in place where if I defend myself, I'm not going to be without a job," said Tolbert, noting union officers informed him that a driver had been threatened with a gun on a bus Thursday evening.

Tolbert said he has a genuine concern for the public and for his drivers who need their wages to support themselves and their families. 

Leaving riders "out stranded is unfortunate," he said, but he doesn't want to risk the safety of his drivers or riders.

"I'm trying to worry about the public and my men and women because their lives are on the line," he said. "if they are going out risking their lives with COVID and now this other concern, it's not fair to anybody."

A worker moves a bucket as buses are cleaned at the Detroit Department of Transportation's Gilbert Terminal, in Detroit, March 17, 2020.

The service disruption comes after a bus driver shortage in March prompted by COVID-19 worries led to a day-long shutdown.

DDOT, at that time, canceled all bus service and encouraged riders to find alternative means of transportation, noting the shortage had only 10% of the buses rolling.

City bus driver Jason Hargrove died of COVID-19 in April after complaining days prior in an online video that a passenger had openly coughed on his bus amid the pandemic. 

To better equip drivers, the city began requiring passengers to enter and exit through the rear of the bus to avoid direct contact with drivers and started sanitizing buses twice a day and deep cleaning them nightly. 

Tolbert said the city has continued to provide drivers with personal protective equipment and stock buses with masks, but "people are taking them at an alarming rate."

The city, he added, has been working to implement additional safety measures to keep drivers safe from encounters with unruly riders but more needs to be done, and faster.

Drivers also continue to struggle with access to public restrooms, often being forced to use portable toilets that are "trashed out."

"It's the city's responsibility when I'm out on the road to see that I have basic human necessities," he said. "And they are falling short. They are falling very short."

The bus union in January cited an attack from December in which a driver had been yanked from her seat while transporting riders on the east side. It was the latest in a series of assaults reported on board. Complaints over driver safety on Detroit's buses, union officials say, have been ongoing for decades.

DDOT serves an average of 85,000 riders daily with 48 fixed bus routes, 12 24-hour routes and six express routes in the city of Detroit and neighboring communities, including Dearborn, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Harper Woods, Livonia, Redford Township, River Rouge and Southfield.