SASKATOON -- The COVID-19 pandemic is partly responsible for the spike in “negative interactions” reported by Saskatoon Transit drivers last year, according to the union representing them.

Darcy Pederson, a bus driver and the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615, said the pandemic has put people on edge, causing tension between operators and riders.

“We’ve had people throw stuff at the operator, verbally assault operators over such simple, small things such as asking them to wear a mask or reminding them of what the fare is,” Pederson said.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen from bus stop to bus stop and people react differently to different situations.”

Saskatoon Transit drivers reported 130 “negative interactions” in 2020, almost double the 76 reported in 2019 and well above the 51 each in 2018 and 2017, according to a new city report.

Of the 308 incidents reported, 28 involved assaults on an operator within the driving compartment and nine were outside the driving compartment.

Majority of the incidents involved verbal altercations, followed by intoxication and fare disputes, the report said.

Jim McDonald, Director of Saskatoon Transit, attributed last year’s increase to COVID-19 and to the transit service placing a greater emphasis on drivers reporting incidents.

“In 2019 and 2020, we activated some call buttons on the mobile data terminals that are actually on the buses so rather than having to pick up a radio and make a call or have to wait until after their shift and write something down, they can actually push a button that talks about an interaction and we’ll follow up with them later but at that point, it’s tracked,” McDonald told CTV News.

The information in the report was requested by city council as part of their approval for funding for a driver safety barrier phase-in program.

In November 2020, council approved the funding and voted to allocate $500,000 from federal gas tax funds to retrofit 24 buses as part of the program, set to be rolled out in the coming months.

Both McDonald and Pederson are hopeful the new barriers will reduce the number of physical altercations.

“It’s going to protect our members from physical assaults. I’m sure the verbal assaults will still stay in place, but at least we know that they’re going to be safe behind the shields,” Pederson said.

Robert Clipperton, a spokesperson for Bus Riders of Saskatoon, said he supports getting more protective measures in place for transit drivers.

He said while there are some negative incidents and altercations, the majority of people who ride the bus are respectful.

Clipperton is reminding other fellow riders to be patient and mindful during these times.

“Wear your mask when you get on the bus, have your mask on when the bus comes so that the driver can see you got one, don’t have to pull it out and put it on and keep everybody else waiting, and everybody else feels safe if you’re wearing your mask on the bus,” he said.

The report is included in the agenda for the next Transportation Committee meeting scheduled for Monday.