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April 2020, Week 2

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 		 [Bus drivers and subway workers are dying from coronavirus at an
alarming rate, and transit union leaders are calling for aggressive
action to make them safer.] [https://www.portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 HIT HARD BY COVID-19, TRANSIT WORKERS CALL FOR SHUTDOWNS  
[https://www.portside.org/node/22668] 

 

 Laura Bliss 
 April 13, 2020
CityLab
[https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2020/04/coronavirus-transit-workers-strike-risk-subway-bus-drivers/609328/]


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 _ Bus drivers and subway workers are dying from coronavirus at an
alarming rate, and transit union leaders are calling for aggressive
action to make them safer. _ 

 A bus driver in New Rochelle, New York, wears a protective mask. New
York's MTA has been particularly hard hit with coronavirus cases. ,
Angus Mordant/Bloomberg 

 

The life of a transit worker was never easy in the United States. Then
along came coronavirus. To enable the livelihoods of other essential
workers, thousands of bus drivers, track repairers, yard masters,
cleaners and others are still showing up to their jobs amid the
pandemic.

But the death toll among the ranks of front-line public transportation
workers, who are considered part of the “essential workforce” in
most U.S. cities, suggests they are acutely vulnerable to the virus.
In New York City, 50 MTA workers have died as of April 13, more than
triple the combined mortality rates of the New York City police and
fire departments so far
[https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-mta-nyc-transit-workers-deaths-20200408-f37damz5tjdmnc4pahurf3cjay-story.html].
A memorial page by the Amalgamated Transit Union shows that at least
of 16 working members have died in other cities
[https://www.atu.org/remember-our-fallen], including Boston, Detroit,
New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. The Transport Workers
Union has stated that at least seven of its members have died
[http://www.twu.org/category/in-the-news/] and that hundreds more
have tested positive for the virus.

As transit workers sicken, union leaders now warn that drastic actions
may be necessary, including work stoppages. While local chapters would
need to decide individually if and where specific tactics are needed,
“federal law recognizes that workers on the transit side should not
be retaliated against for refusing to work when there is a hazardous
safety condition,” said Larry Willis, the president of the
Transportation Trades Department, a labor organization that represents
32 transportation-related unions, including the Amalgamated Transit
Union and Transport Workers Union. “And currently, there is.”

Even under normal conditions, city bus drivers have one of the
highest rates of injuries and illnesses
[http://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/bus-drivers.htm#tab-3] of
all occupations, between vehicle crashes, belligerent passengers, and
the grind of physical labor. Now coronavirus tops that litany of
risks. Among U.S. workers, bus drivers rank in the 78th percentile for
being in close physical proximity to others, which means they are
highly exposed to infectious disease, a _New York Times_
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/15/business/economy/coronavirus-worker-risk.html] analysis
found.

A tragic illustration of the problem came in a recent headline about a
Detroit bus driver who died from coronavirus just days after
complaining about a passenger coughing on him.
[https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/03/us/detroit-bus-driver-dies-coronavirus-trnd/index.html] “Obviously,
we’re being overexposed here,” John Costa, the president of ATU
International, said in a video posted to Facebook on Friday.

Many workers also say that they do not feel adequately protected by
their employers. Kenshun Keaton, a switch operator at the Chicago
Transit Authority, where one shop machinist has died of coronavirus
[https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/4/11/21217814/cta-coronavirus-antonio-martinez-maintenance-worker-covid-19] and several
workers have tested positive
[https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/3/25/21193564/coronavirus-cta-bus-train-operators-test-positive-covid-19] for
the disease, said last Tuesday that he and his colleagues had not
received personal protective equipment beyond globes and hand
sanitizer at that time, and that they were bringing in their own
cleaning materials to disinfect trains and work areas.

“A lot of us are using masks we got from family and friends in the
health care industry,” he said. “We’re not receiving the PPE we
need, and we’re dealing with a lot of anxiety.”

A public information officer from CTA responded that the agency had
established a policy on Wednesday to issue masks to all on-duty
personnel and that it was in “lockstep” with recommendations
specific to the transit workforce from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention
[https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/transit-maintenance-worker.html].

“We are here on the front lines, providing necessary service to the
city. However, we are not going to be working to die.”

Yet transit workers in cities including San Francisco
[https://abc7news.com/bay-area-coronavirus-update-muni-shelter-in-place-lockdown/6098871/], Louisville, Austin
[https://www.statesman.com/news/20200402/3-cap-metro-bus-operators-mechanic-have-coronavirus-agency-says], Washington,
D.C.
[https://wtop.com/tracking-metro-24-7/2020/03/union-calls-for-further-cuts-as-metro-announces-weekday-service-plan-2/],
and Buffalo
[https://buffalonews.com/2020/04/11/theyre-scared-bus-drivers-soldier-on-in-the-face-of-covid-19/?fbclid=IwAR2BZY9g8KrT6ST3EbQcq12-av-mtwxuXYQ7Vx0FvLrSL5TDBi3A0QBk5zE] are
voicing similar fears. In New York City, MTA employees have said that
the agency’s slow response to the pandemic was partly to blame for
the high number of deaths in the past month. The agency started to
distribute surgical and N95 masks to employees in early April. But
those who are already sick say that the damage was already done.

“There’s going to be more people to die, unfortunately, because
they took so long to get us the protection that we needed,” train
conductor Tramell Thompson told NBC News
[https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/mta-workers-say-agency-hasn-t-done-enough-protect-them-n1179996] from
his home last week, where he was quarantined with flu-like symptoms.

An MTA spokesperson said that the agency has acted quickly and
aggressively to protect workers, pointing to a letter_ _by MTA
chairman and CEO Patrick Foye to the _New York Times _in response
to an article that asserted the agency had moved sluggishly
[https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-nyc-mta-subway.html].
“The only ‘sluggish’ response has been on the part of the World
Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
whose guidelines against widespread use of masks the MTA (a
transportation organization, not a medical provider) initially
followed but has since disregarded,” Foye wrote.

Many other job environments are also proving to be hot spots for
coronavirus, from meat-packing plants
[https://www.keloland.com/news/healthbeat/coronavirus/sioux-falls-smithfield-foods-to-close-indefinitely-due-to-covid-19/] to airliners
[http://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/business/coronavirus-flight-attendants-pilots.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article].
But transit labor leaders say that the age of its workforce creates an
additional vulnerability, given the demographic groups at highest
risk
[http://cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precaution%E2%80%A6] for
the virus. An analysis of American Community Survey data by
TransitCenter, a think tank, found that 13% of front-line transit
workers are over the age of 65
[https://transitcenter.org/protecting-transit-workers-racial-justice/],
compared to 7% of the general working population. The large proportion
of black Americans who drive buses, fix tracks and operate
signals underscores the emerging racial disparity in the pandemic’s
death toll
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/10/4-reasons-coronavirus-is-hitting-black-communities-so-hard/].

Other occupational hazards may contribute to pre-existing health
conditions that make some workers more susceptible to the respiratory
disease. “Our members have spent years exposed to diesel fumes and
infectious agents and are subject to unsafe air quality caused by
inadequate air filters and ventilation systems,” Jim Evers, the
president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, said in a letter to
Massachusetts lawmakers last week. “As a result, many employees
already suffer from health ailments and respiratory problems putting
them in high-risk categories — but they show up each day because
they take their responsibilities seriously.”

With tens of millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders or out of
work, ridership on the nation’s top mass transit systems has fallen
70 percent. Combined with a loss in passenger revenue, a dwindling
transit workforce has forced massive service cuts in several cities,
including New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. In San Francisco,
where bus operators are now receiving masks, wipes, and hand
sanitizer, so many workers were calling out sick or using sick days to
avoid infection that the agency was forced to cut roughly 75% of its
bus lines on April 6.
[https://www.sfmta.com/blog/muni-prepares-deliver-essential-trips-only]

But the collapse in ridership hasn’t always prevented dangerous
overcrowding in New York and San Francisco: Because of service cuts,
fewer vehicles and longer headways have led to outrage over packed
conditions on some trains and buses.

Many transit agencies have taken steps to limit risk for workers.
Virtually all have ramped up station and vehicle cleaning. Dozens
have gone fare-free and are boarding passengers on the rear of buses
[https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2020/03/coronavirus-public-transit-fares-free-rides-bus-covid-19/608350/] so
as to avoid contact with operators. Boston and Houston has set up
cordons and signage to help riders practice social-distancing inside
vehicles. Some areas, including Toledo
[https://blade-share.newsslide.com/2c93675f-451d-4a54-be5d-72ba9c7abdf2/768b0acb-fb7d-4792-ba37-b40a9168f91d/?fbclid=IwAR0mLVB2oYQLkcC6xDU7ug5GoE_piEDt1WHsgvQj3OWz0cySMGgFAoRa5Bg] and New
Jersey [https://www.facebook.com/ATUInternational/], are requiring
masks on all passengers who wish to board, a practice featured on a
list of employer demands that ATU is currently petitioning members to
sign
[https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/we-demand-transit-agencies-and-private-companies-provide-stronger-safety-protections-for-workers/?fbclid=IwAR1g1vtLTDUwekZkmxipsh_BulGf-NUGE7Dzntw2V6GGlmXtbsvL__bQ62M].
But the policy can backfire: Philadelphia’s transit system reversed
its short-lived mask requirement on Friday, after footage of a
mask-free man being dragged off a bus went viral
[https://www.inquirer.com/transportation/septa-face-masks-requirement-coronavirus-20200410.html].

Labor groups are calling for stronger protections. In Boston, where at
least 53 employees of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
have tested positive for the coronavirus and one has died, the local
union is appealing to state lawmakers to include transit workers in
legislation designed to ensure emergency leave for workers who catch
Covid-19. In Seattle, which has seen at least three confirmed cases
among transit workers, labor leaders sent an open letter
[https://komonews.com/news/coronavirus/king-county-transit-workers-call-for-hazard-pay-more-protection-against-covid-19] to
King County officials calling for hazard pay, additional PPE, and
extra training for bus cleaners and operators who are frequently
exposed to the virus.

National union bosses are also appealing to the federal government for
assistance. A letter sent to the Federal Transit Administration by 13
labor leaders asked for national guidelines on the minimum standard of
protective equipment transit workers should be able to expect.
“Asking each agency to do that on their own is not getting the job
done,” Willis said. “The federal government has to play a more
robust role in helping secure this type of equipment.”

On April 3, ATU and TWU jointly vowed to take “aggressive action
[http://www.twu.org/press-release-americas-largest-transit-worker-unions-vow-aggressive-action-if-transit-systems-dont-protect-frontline-workers/]”
if transit systems did not move to protect workers, listing a number
of sanitary measures and health care protections as demands.

But some workers say that the safest action is to shut down systems
completely. Labor strikes in transit systems in Birmingham and Detroit
won bus operators a number of demanded protections. Organizers in
other cities say that pausing transit service could flatten the curve
of infections in their ranks, and that if agencies don’t take that
step, workers could take matters into their own hands.

“We need maximum enforcement of passenger limits on the bus, and if
we don’t get that soon, we need to start thinking about other
measures, not just for health and safety of operators but for the
general public too,” said Roger Marenco, the president of the local
TWU chapter in San Francisco. “That could mean compelling our local
politicians to shut the system down.”

Closing major transit networks would throw the commutes of other
essential workers into disarray: An analysis by TransitCenter
[https://transitcenter.org/2-8-million-u-s-essential-workers-ride-transit-to-their-jobs/] found
that 2.8 million commuters with jobs in pandemic-critical categories
— including nurses, orderlies, grocers and pharmacy clerks — rely
on public transit under normal conditions. Short of a total shutdown,
transit agencies could create a badge system to ensure that only
essential workers are permitted to ride, Marenco suggested. Either
way, workers do not wish to sacrifice the health of themselves or
their families: “We are here on the front lines, providing necessary
service to the city,” he said. “However, we are not going to be
working to die.”

Kelly Green, a bus operator at Edmonton Transit Service in Alberta,
Canada, has posted calls for a transit strike on Facebook. He said
that while he didn’t have all the answers about how to get other
people to work during the pandemic, Green believes a labor stoppage
could give transit officials time to figure out safer conditions for
everyone. “I don’t have all the answers about how to do this, but
what I am confident about is that shutdowns save lives,” he said.

On Monday, an online petition
[https://www.change.org/p/transit-agencies-transit-workers-must-take-action-to-stop-covid-19?recruiter=900927374&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=ee0a750de0af495ba469a3e333b1c206] in
support of “democratically decided mass actions of our unions and
workers organizations,” separate from ATU’s appeal to members, had
attracted more than 1,200 signatures. A Facebook post by Transit
Workers Unite, a group organizing the petition
[https://www.facebook.com/transitworkersunite/], called for support
and expressed frustration with a lack of sufficient action by agencies
and union leaders.

“It is clear to front-line workers that those in power are making
this crisis worse,” the post states. “By unnecessarily packing the
buses and trains, failing to provide enough personal protective
equipment (PPE) to workers, and failing to frequently clean the
vehicles, public transit has become a lethal pipeline for viruses.”

_Laura Bliss
[https://www.citylab.com/authors/laura-bliss/] is CityLab’s West
Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter
about maps. Her work has appeared inThe New York Times, The
Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the
book The Future of Transportation._

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