Metro bus driver Sherry Lemon will never forget what happened on May 30.
A well-dressed young man in his early 20s boarded the bus without a mask. Lemon told him that he could only ride the bus with a face covering on.
“He was very calm,” Lemon told St. Louis aldermen at the July 7 Public Safety Committee meeting. “He didn’t use profanity, and he wasn’t belligerent. He said, ‘Okay.’ He proceeded to walk to the front of the bus. He shot at the bus intending to shoot me.”
According to the police report, the man fired a 9 mm pistol at Lemon, she said. Luckily, the polycarbonate shields — that St. Louis Metro Transit installed by the drivers’ seats in all buses as part of the COVID-19 response — prevented the bullet from hitting her.
“This has truly changed my life,” she said, “all because I’m trying to keep the passengers, as well as myself, safe from this silent disease which can also turn deadly.”
And while the shields protected her, Lemon and several other union bus drivers told aldermen that leaders at Metro Transit and Bi-State Development need to do more to protect their drivers. From March 21 to May 30, passengers boarded the bus from the back of the bus and fares were waived — in order to minimize contact between passengers and bus drivers. But on June 1, passengers once again began boarding at the front of the bus and now must pay a $1 fare. Lemon and others said fare transaction increases exposure for both drivers and passengers, and it has increased conflicts as well.
“There’s no reason to put the people at harm for $1,” said Catrina Wilson, vice president of ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) Local 788. “If the customer doesn’t give the fare, we should still allow them to ride.”
Taulby Roach, president and CEO of Bi-State Development, said that the $1 fare was meant to simplify the fare transaction and that the revenue is necessary. Bus revenue for April 2020 was down 50 percent compared to April 2019, and 60 percent for MetroLink.
“We are not in this to make money,” Roach told the American. “We are in this to deliver service. The money I don’t collect today is the service I don’t offer tomorrow.”
However, Wilson told the American that Metro’s budget is not dependent on fares, as they make up about 13 percent of the agency’s revenue in normal times.
“It’s not worth the cost of lives,” Wilson said. “And I don’t understand how he attempts to justify that.”
As far as passengers entering from the back of the bus, Roach said that it’s not fair to people with disabilities. Up until June 1, Roach told the American that people with disabilities were not able to get on the bus if they couldn’t get up the steps. Instead, drivers had to leave them “by the side of the road,” he said, and now there are hundreds of complaints in his “EEO” or Equal Employment Opportunity office.
“I don’t want to say that there was never a case where a considerate driver saw someone and didn’t pull over,” Roach said. “I’m sure that could have happened. There are impacts to these decisions.”
However, Wilson said Roach’s assertion is completely false. Bus drivers never stopped picking up people with disabilities using the front of the bus.
“He has not a clue what’s going on,” Wilson said. “Never did that happen.”
Bus drivers have been reprimanded if they did comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, even through the pandemic, Wilson said.
At the July 7 meeting, the union leaders asked the aldermen for support in getting the health commissioner to issue a health order in requiring that passengers board through the rear of the bus again. Alderman Joe Vaccaro (D-Ward 23) promised that he would go to the mayor about the issue. However, as of July 10, the St. Louis City Health Commissioner, Dr. Fred Echols, had not heard about the union’s request.
Aldermen also said they would ask Metro to pay her assault pay (the 20 percent that workman’s compensation doesn’t cover) for the incident, and she was notified soon after the meeting that she would receive it. Roach couldn’t speak about why Lemon hadn’t received the assault pay yet, but he said that all full-time drivers receive $200 a week in hazard pay.
“That is better than any other system in the whole United States,” Roach said. “I’m proud of that. When it comes to standing up and doing the things we need to do, we do them.”
Drivers also want more support in enforcing the mask requirement.
“With the numbers increasing as far as COVID and bringing the people up through the front, people are scared,” Reginald Howard, president of ATU Local 788. “They are scared of this disease. We need some help to get the message out there, to where it will bounce back on us to make our people feel safer.”