On Tuesday morning, Detroit’s bus drivers called out of work. After the city imposed a mandatory shut down of bars, restaurants, and other entertainment venues Monday afternoon, bus drivers became concerned about their role in potentially spreading the novel coronavirus and getting sick themselves. When fewer than 10 percent of buses made their rounds Tuesday morning, the city of Detroit cancelled bus service for the day, leaving tens of thousands of people without a way to get to work.
Glenn Tolbert, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, did not respond to a voicemail as of publication, but he told the Detroit News the union feels badly for those Detroiters.
"The drivers didn't feel safe going on the bus, spreading their germs and getting germs from anybody," Tolbert said. "We are on the front lines and picking up more sick people than doctors see. This was a last resort but drivers didn't feel safe."
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This reference to the “front line” is common among public transit workers across the country. The unprecedented public response to the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating which jobs are critical to society functioning: the medical workers, pharmacy staff, bank tellers, and grocery store clerks to name a few. In cities, transportation providers get all those people—plus anyone who is sick—to where they need to go, and are therefore just as critical.
This makes bus drivers in particular a vital but vulnerable group. More than 80,000 healthcare workers commute via bus in New York City every day, according to a 2018 report by the Center for an Urban Future. In many cities, including New York, riders typically have to board through the front door to pay the fare, putting every single rider in close proximity to the driver, who then ends his or her day at the bus depot where maintenance and other staff work.
But bus drivers haven’t been prioritized the same way medical workers have for safety gear such as masks and gloves and COVID-19 testing. In New York, J.P. Patafio, vice president of Transit Workers Union Local 100 which represents the city’s bus drivers, told Motherboard his biggest concerns are the safety of his workers and maintaining service for those who need it.
These two worries are, really, one in the same; without healthy workers, the buses won’t run. In much the same way a hospital has to do its best to prevent too many nurses and doctors from getting sick, so too must transit providers. “I can’t have a whole depot knocked out,” Patafio said, “because if it is we’re not going to have service.”
This deprioritization of public transit workers relative to other professions is emblematic of a trend in American cities of treating public transit service as far less important than it is. There’s an industry-wide shortage of bus drivers because, as CityLab wrote in 2018, “driving a city bus is a worse paying, more arduous, and more dangerous occupation than it once was.” Agency resources have been sapped and bus drivers have bore the brunt of it.
So it is hardly a surprise bus drivers are being asked to work under these exceptional circumstances without the necessary equipment to keep themselves and riders as safe as possible. One New York City bus driver who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak to the press told Motherboard that the agency is not providing gloves or masks because they don’t want to “scare the passengers.” Patafio said he has heard anecdotes and rumors to that effect, but in reality any driver who wants to wear gloves and masks can. The problem is there’s a shortage of both and not all supply rooms have them.
The MTA disputed the shortage, and said that drivers are free to wear masks and gloves if they want.
“Our workforce of bus operators has risen to this challenge, as they always do. They are providing safe and dependable service to medical workers, first responders, and other essential personnel every single day; we’re incredibly proud of their professionalism and grateful for their dedication to the people of New York," an MTA spokesperson told Motherboard. "Their safety and that of our customers is our top priority and we’re following the guidance of health authorities, including that anyone feeling sick should stay home and call a doctor. Employees are free to wear masks or gloves if they wish, and employees whose work duties require them are issued the appropriate personal protective equipment.”
Additionally, the MTA said that NYC buses are equipped with plexiglas barriers that separate drivers from the public, and that the MTA is now designating the seats closest to the drivers on express buses as prohibited for customers when other seats are available.
For Patafio, the bigger problem is the lack of testing available to drivers. Without knowing who is sick and who isn’t—and just as importantly, who had COVID-19 and is now better—he worries it’s only a matter of time until it spreads within the bus workforce. He also thinks masks and gloves should no longer be optional, but safety equipment as part of the job.
Patafio knows the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city’s bus service, doesn’t have direct control over glove and mask supplies or testing kits. The MTA is controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has taken charge during the Coronavirus crisis even over many city affairs.
Back in Detroit, the sick out seems to have worked. The city is reportedly receptive to the drivers’ concerns and will add more cleaning and provide gloves and masks for drivers. Tolbert thinks the buses can be back on the road Wednesday morning.
Patafio sounded sympathetic to the position the MTA is in, but emphasized that getting COVID-19 tests for his workers is his priority so service can keep running. “I guess on some level,” he said, “everyone is trying to do the best they can.”
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the MTA.