PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On the same day TriMet announced they’re facing its worst hiring issues and staff shortages in its history, one of its drivers was assaulted on the 75 Bus Route near Hawthorne and Cesear Chavez boulevards.

Dispatch audio recorded the driver saying she was hit on and spit by Michelle Hamberg, who records show has several charges of interfering with public transportation, including third-degree assault in January.

“Operator assaults are on the rise,” said Shirley Block, the president of ATU Local 757.

ATU Local 757 says Wednesday’s assault was one of seven it has tracked on the transit system this month. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office reports 50 open cases of felony assaults in the TriMet system.

Former driver Richard Williams says he was assaulted during his four years working for the transit agency and was never told if the suspect was arrested. He says drivers are the first people to interact with someone having a mental break.

“Most drivers don’t know how to handle it. It can get very confrontational very quick and it can get very physical and dangerous very fast. I think that, in my opinion, that’s where TriMet can leave you out a hook,” he said.

In a detailed response, TriMet says it is committed to improving the safety of operators and riders. In a phone conversation with one of its spokespeople, they told KOIN 6 that the vast majority of operators have not been assaulted, while recognizing the traumatic experience assaults can bring to the victims who are operating buses or trains.

TriMet says it encourages drivers to be “informers rather than enforcers” of violations of TriMet’s code or avoiding paying fares. It says operators can either remind a person or report the violation.

“TriMet’s thing is, ‘don’t engage, don’t engage,'” Williams said, “It’s hard to not engage when you’re in a people-oriented business.”

TriMet is upgrading safety barriers for drivers on buses to leave less area for things like drinks to be thrown at drivers, a problem Block says is common. They’re also working with local law enforcement agencies to provide more officers for the Transit Police Division, overseen by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. It is also working with security firms for security officers, though all those public and private agencies are also facing hiring issues.

TriMet is offering a starting wage above $25 per hour as well as a $7,500 bonus for new hires, but Block says the money isn’t enough for many people.

Block believes the safety issues in the transit system are part of the problem in hiring. She was part of a job fair in June that did bring on a few dozen people but says more people were dissuaded by the safety.

“People just don’t want to drive a bus. They are afraid of getting hurt. They want to go home, they want a safe job to come to work, earn a decent living and go home to their family,” Block said.

TriMet estimates it needs 350 people to fill its current openings but needs several more to address upcoming retirees. Seventy-five percent of applications the agency has received have come since April. The retirement problem led TriMet to announce service lines being cut in September. 

Below is a statement from a TriMet spokesperson. 

“We plan to begin adding back service hours in 2023, as long as our operator ranks continue to increase. The issue of people mistreating and at times becoming violent with others has escalated throughout the pandemic across the nation and throughout customer-facing businesses where workers interact directly with the public. With that, we’ve seen similar increases at TriMet as well. But even before the pandemic, the transit industry had been working to provide greater protection for frontline employees and mitigate the potential for assaults and crimes against frontline employees.

Here in Portland, far more riders thank their operators than disrespect, mistreat, attack operators and frontline employees.

TriMet is committed to safety and security and always looking at how we can improve the safety of our employees and riders. We have a multifaceted approach to security that combines staff, police and contract security. Law enforcement agencies in the jurisdictions we serve respond to calls on the TriMet system, just as they do throughout their communities.

The Transit Police Division is a community-based policing effort. Under the command of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, officers from MCSO and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, along with Gresham, Port of Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro police departments are assigned to the division. The Transit Police Officers patrol the transit system while helping riders, responding to incidents and investigating reports of crime.

We have contract Transit Security Officers who are stationed at key locations and ride throughout the system. TriMet Customer Safety Supervisors team up with contract Customer Safety Officers to help riders while making sure people are following the rules for riding, which we refer to as the TriMet Code of Conduct, including having (a) valid fare. We’ve recently added a Safety Response Team to help connect people with social services for shelter, mental health and addiction. We also have our On-Street Customer Service team and field supervisors out, helping riders, providing a presence and reporting issues that arise.

In addition to personnel, we also equipment to enhance security. We have security cameras on every bus and train, as well as at rail platforms and transit centers. We have installed safety panels next to the operator’s seat and expect to upgrade those in the coming months to provide even more protection. TriMet also trains operators to be informers rather than enforcers. That means advising riders that fare is required but not refusing someone service if they don’t pay. Rather operators are trained to report the fare evasion.”