TRANSIT WORKERS ON THE FRONT LINES FIGHTING COVID 19
by Mark Henry, Chair, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) NYS Legislative Conference Board & President/Business Agent, ATU Local 1056
COVID-19 disrupted our lives.
It infected many individuals and families.
It took too many lives.
Many learned through the media how this highly infectious disease really impacted communities of color; many in these communities serve in front lines in jobs essential to us in efforts to combat and survive COVID19. Think not just Doctors and Nurses, EMS, Police and Firefighters, sanitation workers; think about Health Care workers in hospital and clinics and testing facilities, food service workers, cleaning and maintenance workers, government workers who cannot work remotely, retail banking, supermarkets, essential construction that must continue – It involves many more than most typically think as possibly exposed and at risk.
My members and other public transit workers get these people who WE NEED to get to their workplaces to and from their jobs and homes. Some of these workers go home to crowded conditions not conducive to staying healthy when we face a pandemic. We saw the images of Elmhurst Hospital the public hospital which serves Corona. Exposed to all dangers, transit workers still show great resiliency mentally and physically under uncertain conditions.
As president of a public bus transit union I observed firsthand these impacts among members of ATU Local 1056 and the commuters they serve throughout Queens. Many of our members who operate and maintain NYC Transit bus routes serving Queens with some routes extending into The Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, come from communities of color. Many bus riders live in these communities. Too often these communities lack the services they need. Crises such as this pandemic exacerbates these disparities.
Look at the disparity of services, medical centers, health care, hospital closures, quality of school education, physical fitness, curriculums, public services, shopping, groceries shopping, types restaurants, and housing, but mainly public transportation; the inequality in every one of these categories is immense. Our communities are marginalized and undervalued.
Many of our members developed illnesses on the job, which this coronavirus preys upon. “Pre-existing conditions” — high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes plus inadequate healthy food options — make African Americans more vulnerable to the virus. Indeed, at 127 per 100,000, the known death rate for black New Yorkers more than doubles the rate for whites.
This remains important as we still know little about COVID-19 other than it attacks vulnerable populations, the symptoms vary, and we too often experience a devastating aftermath. Our local has suffered nine (9) lives lost due to this virus; eight families and countless friends and co-workers have been impacted. Another 103 members of our local are either positive or in some type of quarantine status. This virus attacks the lungs and other vital organs which makes my members particularly vulnerable, working against an unknown assailant virus that has a limitless time frame, according to health experts.
UNFORTUNATELY, our governments acted slowly. Not to rehash this. Others have. Just let’s say, this left the public and my members and others in transit unprotected and under-protected. The authority following CDC directives, was extremely slow to protect Local 1056 members and other MTA bus, subway and rail workers.
Providing proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) timely could have saved a life. The Transit Authority lamented that decision when the first transit workers died as a result of COVID -19. ATU and our colleagues in MTA labor raised this need. Only then did the authority provide needed PPE to workers and initiated effective measures suggested by the unions (Cleaning of Equipment and workspaces, social distancing in workplace, rear boarding, and blocking of first several rows of bus, requiring passengers to wear masks).
We note the MTA and NYC Transit responded despite official CDC recommendations to provide our members, and the riding public protective measures. Despite this, we still rely on outside sources to supplement PPE issued by the authority; we appreciate the efforts of the Queens Borough President Sharon Lee and Member of Congress Grace Meng in this regard. Going forward we need protective barriers for bus operators in ALL buses.
The MTA has also increased COVID19 testing opportunities and screens our members before they enter our depots in Jamaica, Queens Village and Flushing/Corona (Casey Stengel).
We also appreciate the efforts to clean and disinfect buses, subways and stations. These cleaning protocols matter: ATU supports the recently mandated a 24 hour cleaning schedule for public transit equipment to help reduce the spread of the virus through the community; this includes addressing the serious homeless problem on buses – yes also on buses – and trains as these individuals seek shelter through the mass transit system. As to overnight subway closures, MTA and authority already “enjoy” shuttle bus replacements where it shuts down parts of system and it should rely solely on its public transit bus operators and not privatize a public service. Outsourcing work makes absolutely no sense – especially for an agency strapped for cash – as an answer to any overnight subway closures. We continue to object to the Authority directly and in statements, testimonies and various media on this privatization of some services when the subways are shutdown overnight 1:00 – 5:00 a.m. We argue for greater bus deployments. More sensible when about 50% of the affected subway riders commute between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m.
The transit authority remains consistent, not recognizing or minimizing the value of their employee. They seem never to miss an opportunity to demonstrate this! Even when it comes to Government stimulus programs at federal or state level, they carved out their employees from receiving the necessary relief. Pandemic relief in those documents, stimulus laws, must provide relief to our membership. Stress of working in the unknown and still providing for your family adds to the anger and frustration. Our Transit workers merit hazardous pay as “essential workers” with demonstrated recognition.
Focusing on NYC (24/7), especially in the outer boroughs where many transit deserts exist, New York City needs public transit to work in order to re-open NYC and allow our city and our nation’s economy to rebound. The best way to kill a neighborhood is to kill its public transit or limit its usage and service. An essential service should not put the public at risk when they use that service. The authority must provide the necessary service level so riders can easily maintain social distancing.
COVID-19 has shown all the economic pitfalls, adverse impacts of cost-cutting and elimination of programs over past years…it’s amazing that your zip code could impact your quality of life.
We need a protected, safe and healthy workforce and workplace to provide levels of service needed to assure the riding public they can safely return to work via public transit. The workers needed to sustain the rebound in services, support roles, hospitality, retail, public service, health care, education need safe public transit to return to work in numbers enough to make a difference. Our neighborhoods need to reflect what is necessary to sustain communities of color with a proper lifestyle. Maybe then COVID-19 could be defeated or at least somewhat contained.
We seek the public’s support on continued protections for our members and their own adherence to measures such as wearing masks and physical distancing. We need support to pressure the MTA and government to ensure service levels that make transit safe for the riding public. We need support for hazard pay. We need employers who can implement policies to stagger work hours and days until conditions change. We need to Authority looking at deployments of buses to help address potential unsafe crowding along routes.