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Under the Bus: Hero Drivers Fight MTA Over Pay After Being Attacked While Protecting New Yorkers

Brooklyn-based MTA bus driver Tommy Lau was assaulted on his lunch break after trying to stop a mugging, June 4, 2021.
Brooklyn-based bus driver Tommy Lau was assaulted on a break after trying to stop a mugging.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A Brooklyn bus driver hailed as a hero after being slugged and slurred while trying to protect an elderly Asian couple has been denied workers’ compensation by the MTA — all because the attack occurred during his coffee break.

Tommy Lau, 63, has been out of work since March 23, when police said he was spat upon, punched and hit with a racial slur while intervening during a mugging.

Lau was in uniform while on the 30-to-60 minute break at 86th Street and 25th Street in Bensonhurst when he said he spotted a man trying to snatch groceries from the couple.

“I didn’t want to see justice not getting taken care of,” Lau told THE CITY. “You can’t walk away when you see an injustice happening.”

The choice to step in hit the veteran Chinese-American bus driver in the pocketbook when the MTA rejected his claim for workers’ compensation pay that would have covered the period from March 24 to June 2. The reason for the denial: He was injured while on a break from work.

When an injury occurs on an employee’s own time, workers’ compensation does not apply, according to the MTA, which gives workers the option to use vacation time and sick days to take paid time off.

“Injuries not related to job duties, sustained when not working as is clearly the case here, are not covered,” Tim Minton, an MTA spokesperson, said in a statement to THE CITY. “Similarly, the State Workers’ Compensation Program would not cover injuries that are not related to work, such as personal travel commuting to and from home.”

‘Did the Right Thing’

Lau and the largest union for transit workers are contesting the decision.

“He stepped in, he did the right thing, the [Transit Authority] called him a hero and now they don’t want to pay him,” said JP Patafio, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100. “They find the worst loopholes.”

The MTA spokesperson commended Lau for “admirably” coming to the aid of the couple, who police said were being harassed by a homeless man with 18 prior arrests. Minton noted Lau “has other available benefits, including sick time and vacation leave.”

The incident came amid a citywide surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.

The suspect, Donovan Lawson, 26, was charged with hate crime assault, aggravated assault, menacing and harassment.

Lau said he suffered neck and shoulder injuries from being punched.

“I’m a 140-pound Asian male, 5-foot-6,” Lau said. “When a guy who is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds punches you, you go down.”

Insult to Injury

The union is also protesting the treatment of another Brooklyn bus driver denied full compensation after being attacked last summer.

Anthony Reid, 63, had just stepped off of his bus at an East New York bus stop on July 5 when he was punched in the head by a male passenger whom he had earlier asked to wear a mask, according to a NYPD spokesperson. There has been no arrest in the case.

“The senseless assault he suffered is unacceptable,” said Minton.

MTA bus driver Anthony Reid is still recovering after being assaulted last summer by a passenger he’d asked to put on a face mask. May 28, 2021.
MTA bus driver Anthony Reid is still recovering after being assaulted last summer by a passenger he’d asked to put on a face mask. May 28, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

While the MTA paid Reid’s workers’ compensation claim, the agency denied his application for a pay differential, saying he was “not performing any activity associated with his job” when he was attacked.

“It wasn’t like he had a three-hour break and was playing dominoes across the street,” Patafio said. “It’s just amazing that they’re even contesting it.”

Reid has yet to return to work nearly a year later, saying his vision was affected by the punch that shattered a bone near his left eye.

“The mindset and the physical well-being are not there yet,” Reid told THE CITY. “I’m still recuperating from that assault.”

‘That’s My Community’

Lau, who also remains out of work, said he does not regret standing up to the man who was harassing the couple.

“That’s my community,” he said. “You see something happen, you intervene.”

The MTA reported 1,662 incidents of assault or harassment against bus operators in 2020 — of those, 44 would qualify as assaults under New York State Penal Law, according to an agency spokesperson.

Through April of 2021, there have been more than 500 instances in which bus operators were harassed or assaulted, according to MTA statistics. That number largely includes verbal abuse and spitting.

Minton could not confirm whether those numbers include cases where bus operators are considered to be off duty when attacked.

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