Brooklyn Bus Drivers Refuse to Pick Summer Shifts, Saying Schedule Is 'A Recipe For Disaster'

“We have to give people confidence to come back on buses,” a union official told Motherboard. “Having a packed bus does not give people confidence.”
June 1, 2020, 5:46pm
Woman cleaning bus
Image: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

Brooklyn’s 3,500 bus drivers refused to pick their shifts for the summer work schedule on Monday because they believe it will result in packed buses, putting worker and passenger health at risk, Motherboard has learned.

“They ignore me and give me a schedule exactly like last year’s schedule,” JP Patafio, vice president of Transit Workers Union Local 100, told Motherboard. “And I told them I’m not going to accept this schedule. It’s dangerous for my members and it’s dangerous for riders.”

The refusal to pick shifts doesn’t mean Brooklyn’s bus drivers are striking; New York State’s Taylor Law makes it illegal for public employees to strike. The New York City Transit Authority, which runs the subway and buses, will still assign drivers to shifts. But the pick boycott comes as frustration mounts among some of the city’s transit workers, 123 of whom have died from coronavirus, that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which includes NYCTA as well as the commuter railroads, is not doing enough to adjust to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the union’s requests have to do with the complicated logistics of running service in a city that hardly resembles itself. For example, drivers who change shifts at locations other than bus depots no longer have restaurants or other businesses they can use to get food or use bathrooms between shifts, so the union is asking for more time between shifts so workers can get to whatever businesses remain open to them.

But the primary concerns have to do with worker and passenger safety, particularly around social distancing. The union is demanding more bus service so riders can reasonably expect to have no more than 15 people on a standard 40-foot bus at any given time, which would allow approximately six feet between each person. Currently, NYCT schedules service to accommodate up to 54 people per bus. In addition, the union is asking for hazard pay to cover new expenses drivers are shouldering, such as purchasing their own gloves and facemasks and unexpected child care expenses with the cancellation of schools and summer camps.

“The MTA has led the nation in protecting the health and safety of its heroic workforce, including implementing rear-door boarding, providing employees millions of masks and gloves before the CDC later revised its recommendation, installing a robust barrier to ensure social distance for operators, and enacting the first COVID-19 family benefits agreement,” MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins said in a statement. “Only a small segment of one of the MTA’s seven bus unions has asserted they don’t want to go forward with the summer pick unless it comes with a pay increase. This is not something that is appropriate to negotiate through our quarterly scheduling process and we continue to call on the federal government to step up and immediately provide hazard pay for our heroic frontline workers.”

The pay increase referenced in the MTA’s statement has to do with the extra time the union is requesting for bus drivers to find food and bathrooms to use between shifts, which would be paid time.

In an email to Patafio, Craig Cipriano, the Acting Senior Vice President of NYCT Buses, said the pick would go ahead and that “the union is free to address any issues it deems appropriate through the contractual grievance process by filing an appropriate grievance with Labor Relations.”

A shift pick is a quarterly process where bus drivers pick the routes and shifts they will drive.

While overall ridership on both the buses and subways has plummeted during the pandemic, some bus routes are still crowded, particularly in areas that serve areas with a high concentration of homeless shelters, essential workers, and hospitals. For example, Javier Oquendo, a bus driver out of the East New York depot, told Motherboard most of their routes are still routinely packed and that “there’s no plan for social distancing.” He added that the plan is “madness” and a “recipe for disaster.”

The pick boycott was in the works before demonstrations took place across the country to protest the killing of George Floyd and subsequent police brutality. Anecdotally, bus drivers seem broadly supportive of the demonstrations by honking as protesters march by and throwing their fists in the air. On Friday night, a Brooklyn bus driver refused to drive arrested protesters after his bus was commandeered by the NYPD.

But multiple drivers Motherboard spoke to also worry that the NYPD commandeering their buses puts an unwanted target on their backs. Several buses had to be abandoned over the weekend and the drivers had to walk back to the depot through the unrest. Photos provided to Motherboard show at least one bus vandalized.

Those concerns only add to the precarious feeling some bus drivers have as they go out on their shifts in the middle of a pandemic. The MTA has instituted social distancing and mask requirements for all riders, but that can be difficult to enforce in practice, especially because riders are now allowed to board through the rear door. Gerard Miller, an operator on the B46 bus in Brooklyn, told Motherboard he recently tried to get some people to leave an overcrowded bus when a man came forward and told Miller to keep driving or he would kill him. Since then, Miller has been hesitant to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. “I would not take my life to tell a customer to wear a mask,” he said.

As New York City edges towards Phase I of re-opening in the coming weeks—perhaps as early as June 8—some bus drivers are worried about what the future holds, especially if the MTA tries to run a 2019 schedule during the 2020 pandemic.

“We need a plan,” Oquendo said. “But there’s no plan.”

This article originally appeared on VICE US.