Unsafe streets: Deteriorating public safety is impacting workers on the job

Pepper spray? Working in pairs? So far, says Portland Parks groundskeeper and union steward Eric Payne, the City of Portland has declined to implement union suggestions for keeping parks workers safe.  | PHOTO BY CHERYL JUETTEN

By COLIN STAUB

Eric Payne and Luis Flores do grounds maintenance for Portland Parks and Recreation, watering grass and trimming vegetation. One day in early 2020 when they pulled into Montavilla Park on Northeast 82nd Avenue they spotted a man tossing a butcher knife at a tree. To avoid interacting, they started work in another part of the park.

“We’re over there working on the other side of the park, and here he comes and he’s got the butcher knife,” said Payne, a 20-year city employee and a union steward for Laborers’ Local 483. Payne recalls thinking, “Man, this is gonna suck. I’m gonna get stabbed.”

As the knife-wielder got close, Payne was replacing a garbage can that had been removed from its mount and strewn on the ground. Payne held up the can and said, simply, “Do you want to put that in here?”

The man paused, then said, “OK.” He leaned over, reached all the way to the bottom of the can and dropped the knife.

According to reports shared with the Labor Press, Parks workers like Payne and Flores face unsafe situations with some regularity. In Waterfront Park a utility worker refused a request from a stranger to borrow his tools, and was punched in the face. Cutting down a dead tree in Overlook Park, a parks horticulturalist was approached by a woman who threatened to kick the worker in the head. In the Lents neighborhood, a parks technician was cleaning a restroom when a man entered and tried to corner her; she exited to safety, but he followed her.

In fact, across the Portland area, public-facing union members in multiple industries are feeling less safe on the job.

“The social contract that’s out there—how we behave in public and to the workers that are serving the public—it’s gone from ‘the customer is always right’ to ‘the customer could attack you if you don’t do the right thing,’” says Bill Bradley, executive board member at Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, the union that represents transit employees.

And all too often, workers feel like they’re on their own to deal with the threats. 

In Portland’s parks, public safety response often falls to park rangers. But park rangers don’t have the same capabilities as police officers. They lack the authority to stop or detain people, and are trained to retreat from escalating situations. In the outer-Eastside parks where Payne and Flores work, law enforcement response time can be slow.

Payne says parks workers come to the conclusion: “It’s either up to us to look out for ourselves, and/or just get in the truck and get the hell out of there.”

Unsafe behind the wheel

Nationwide, transit agencies have reported more attacks on employees the past two years, and the Portland area is no exception. TriMet reports there were 79 physical assaults on its employees, contractors or transit police in 2021, up from 54 physical assaults in 2020. But those numbers only reflect incidents that meet the criminal definition of assault, says TriMet spokesperson Roberta Alstadt.

“It doesn’t give the full sense of what our operators and front line staff are facing out there,” Alstadt said.

Besides assault, TriMet tallies incidents of harassment (such as spitting offenses), menacing, public indecency and vandalism, as well as verbal incidents, passengers throwing items and other not necessarily criminal behavior that is still disruptive. TriMet recorded 649 such occurrences in 2020, up from 429 in 2019—a 51% increase. Bradley, the ATU officer, says the rise is not just attributable to COVID-19. ATU started noticing an uptick as early as 2017, he said. 

[pullquote][EMTs] signed up to go out and help people, not to have to worry about their own public safety.” —Dave Tully, Teamsters Local 223 president[/pullquote]But the increase from 2019 to 2020 was more striking given the dramatic drop-off in ridership as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In January 2020, TriMet bus and light rail ridership together averaged 1.8 million rides per week, and the agency reported 36 security incidents for the month. In October 2020, when ridership had dropped to less than half the January numbers, TriMet reported more than double the number of security incidents, 78. The total number of incidents in 2021 has not yet been compiled.

TriMet’s board of directors recently acknowledged the conditions workers face, and voted Jan. 26 to create a new offense that applies to individuals who propel “saliva, blood, urine, semen, feces or other dangerous substance” at a TriMet employee or contractor. Already a criminal act, this behavior will now be eligible for a ban from TriMet services, regardless of what happens with the offense in the courts.

“This is a frequent concern that I hear, and it must not be tolerated,” said  TriMet general manager Sam Desue, Jr., during a December 2021 TriMet board meeting. Just that morning, a rider had assaulted an employee with bodily fluids, Desue said.

Operators won’t be asked to enforce the ban, Alstadt noted, but will be able to call a supervisor if they notice a banned rider.

A year after parks workers make safety suggestions, still waiting

Last year, a Laborers Local 483 representative and several members in Parks brought their safety concerns to head leadership at the bureau, including Director Adena Long and Deputy Director Todd Lofgren. In January 2021, they told the managers the bureau hadn’t reacted effectively to rising safety problems, and they put forward a dozen proposals to improve on-the-job safety. Parks workers say the response to their written proposals has been underwhelming so far.

For instance, in response to the suggestion that workers carry pepper spray, the bureau said that could create liability for the city, and said the city’s risk management office advised that only rangers and police officers carry pepper spray.

At a September 2021 meeting of the Portland Parks Board, a citizen advisory group, parks managers reported that they’re seeing increased harassment of staff. In response, they said there would be training for all staff  in “verbal judo,” which focuses on de-escalation. The bureau is also hiring an additional 24 seasonal rangers, a spokesperson told the Labor Press. 

But parks maintenance workers represented by Local 483 say they have yet to see public safety improvements in their day-to-day jobs. And they wonder why some of their recommendations haven’t taken hold. First on the list was having maintenance staff visit parks in pairs, rather than solo. Working in pairs was common before the pandemic, but now employees frequently work alone, says Payne, the union steward.

Parks bureau management response to that suggestion? Employees who want to work in pairs for safety reasons should notify their supervisor, and the bureau’s safety team will then investigate and craft a resolution to the problem.

“Deploying staff in pairs is one tool that may be available after the safety team reviews the problem and, together with the Division Manager, determines an appropriate approach to mitigate and respond to a specific safety concern,” wrote Long, the bureau director, and Parks Security and Emergency Manager Vicente Harrison, in response to the union recommendation.

For workers on the ground, that string of bureaucratic “maybes” didn’t offer much hope.

“That process would be months at best,” Payne said. “These are things that are occurring in the moment.”

Safety stress risks burnout

Burnout due to safety concerns is impacting other public-facing jobs, including medical transport. Teamsters Local 223 represents Portland-area paramedics. Local 223 president Dave Tully says some members are looking to move into positions off the streets, into dispatch work, for example, to get away from the crime.

Tully has been hearing stories from members. In Southeast Portland, two paramedics were at an intersection when an individual approached and smashed the passenger-side window of their ambulance with a baseball bat. Then there was an individual throwing rocks at vehicles, including ambulances. At times, dispatch would advise ambulances to avoid certain areas where the rock thrower was thought to be active, Tully said.

“That’s not what these people signed up for,” Tully said. “These people signed up to go out and help people, not to have to worry about their own public safety.”

Bradley, the ATU Local 757 officer, says transit managers need to realize that safety concerns are driving some employees out of these jobs altogether.

“We’re having recruiting problems getting operators,” Bradley said. 

Bradley’s not exaggerating. TriMet recently curtailed service on 20 bus lines due to “the most severe bus operator shortage” in its history, the agency announced. Alstadt, TriMet’s spokesperson, said worker assaults are one factor in employees leaving, but that it’s also connected with the wider “great resignation,” which has seen workers across the economy leaving their jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re having retention problems keeping operators [at TriMet],” Bradley said. “And we really think that the daily barrage of either verbal or physical assaults is contributing to that. We’ve got to find a fix.”


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