Talking to transit workers these days, one phrase comes up over and over again: we’re on the front lines. Like the doctors and nurses in hospitals and grocery store employees, transit workers are still going to work and still doing their best with what they’re told are limited resources to keep them safe while doing so.
Motherboard spoke to transit workers from around the country about how they feel going to work at a time with plummeting ridership and if they feel like management is doing everything they can to keep them safe. Among them, there is a near-unanimous belief that they’re being asked to risk their health in avoidable ways in order to keep doing their jobs. Some lament a rationing of hand sanitizer. Others point out that the supposed “deep cleaning” is not nearly as thorough as it needs to be. In New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, at least 52 transit employees have tested positive for the virus and one subway conductor has died.
At the core of it all is a problem that predates the coronavirus crisis: a lack of communication and trust between management and labor. In good times, this relationship is saturated with complications because management ultimately answers to politicians, and politicians often have other concerns than providing good service and treating workers fairly. For example, multiple workers told Motherboard they were initially instructed not to wear masks, because management didn’t want to scare riders, a concern that seems unbearably quaint today.
Are you a public transit employee? Are you having trouble navigating your agency's sick leave policy or otherwise concerned about its reaction to coronavirus? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Aaron Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Motherboard heard from a dozen bus drivers and train operators for this article. Below are excerpts from seven of those conversations. Every transit employee asked for anonymity because they feared they would be fired if they spoke about their concerns to the press. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity and to preserve anonymity.
“A lot of the workforce is probably already infected”
Communication between management and the workforce is very poor. We pretty much have no clue what's going on each day. We have an MTA covid command message center on our internal web portal but it doesn't even get updated frequently.
Realistically all that's really been done is there's more soap, and SOMETIMES hand sanitizer at our crew room locations. Initially they didn't even want to allow us to wear masks because they thought it would invoke public panic.
There's now memos posted about keeping safe distances from one another (6 feet etc) but because they refuse to reduce service our crew rooms which are already small are just crowded with people that most definitely are not 6 feet apart. [Note: after this email was sent, the MTA instituted an “essential service” schedule that cuts some off-peak subway and bus service.]
They claim to be cleaning the trains, and at some terminals/yards that definitely is the case. However the operating positions for the train operators and conductors are rarely if ever cleaned. It is apparently our responsibility to keep those clean, using our own cleaning supplies. Which at the moment is very difficult to come by. So let's say a coworker has Covid-19 and was just in that cab. If you don't have hydrogen peroxide, Clorox wipes, alcohol or Lysol, you're pretty much SOL.
When we sign in, we are required to meet with the dispatcher at the location for a fitness for duty assessment. Make sure we're good to operate, this is good. Except that a few dispatchers have been tested positive and sent home. How many operators and conductors did they come into contact with prior to being sent home though? A lot of the workforce is probably already infected, and either just an asymptomatic carrier, or hasn't gotten to the point where they feel sick yet.
-New York City subway train operator
After the MTA shifted to “essential service” schedules, I contacted this operator to ask if the crowding had gotten any better in crew rooms. “As of right now that would be negative,” he replied. “Right now they really don't know what's going on. We’ll all be scheduled to work, but you'll technically be making fewer trips. It's at the discretion of the dispatcher. So packed crew rooms are still a thing, unless it just happens to be that time where most crews are on the road.”
The following day, he emailed to say one crew room was less crowded. Not because of any service changes, but because so many workers called out sick.
Later that day, he emailed me again to say a worker on his line posted on Facebook that he tested positive and there is "a very high likelihood" they came into contact. He is now trying to figure out if the MTA's covid leave policy applies to workers who have come into contact with other workers who have tested positive, because he hasn't accrued enough sick days to take two weeks off. A recent tweet from the New York City subway's official account says, "We're running as many trains as we possibly can, but we’re also insisting that any MTA employee who feels sick or has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 must stay home. That is non-negotiable, and it's part of how we're keeping you safe."
“Transit agencies these days are more worried about saving face and looking good in the eyes of the public.”
So far all the agency has done for us is give us hand sanitizer, one bottle is all we’re allotted. My union had to almost beg them to allow us to wear face mask.
I just read that local hospitals are running out of supplies for testing so that adds to the stress. We don’t have driver shields here [hard plastic dividers between drivers and riders] so there’s that fear that someone will attack me from behind. This just adds to the stress of being a bus operator.
Some transit agencies have turned to rear-door entry and exit and stopped collecting fares to try to limit operator contact with the public (this won’t apply to disabled and elderly who need to use the ramp/lift).
My union claims that management is discussing the idea of rear door boarding and entry, I personally think since other agencies are doing it, it’s a no brainer at a time like this. (especially these days they don’t want us to worry about fare enforcement, that’s a whole other story). Transit agencies these days are more worried about saving face and looking good in the eyes of the public. Driver safety and protection falls to the wayside here.
-Bus driver in upstate New York
“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to use our own money to buy wipes and gloves”
Basically, the governor and MTA executives have deemed public transit to be an essential service, which is understandable, even if 100 percent of non-essential employees have to stay home there are still people who need to get to hospitals, fire houses, and precincts for work. Many of us understand that and that’s why we’re making the effort to come to work despite the rapid spread of the virus.
Unfortunately for us from what I’ve seen first hand, the only thing we’ve been provided is hand sanitizer. And not enough of it. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to use our own money to buy wipes and gloves for others which are very difficult to find. I saw a conductor at Main St-Flushing [the terminal station for the 7 line in Queens] put a mask and gloves on, then he proceeded to start cleaning air vents and the walls surrounding those vents; others are wiping down tables, chairs and still expected to continue to use our own money to buy wipes and disinfectant spray to clean our operating cabs.
As city employees [the MTA is a state agency] we don’t make enough money to care for our children, buy food, necessary stock for the home, gas for our cars, and on top of that buy supplies and PPE [personal protection equipment] to do our job that the state and city see as necessary.
I don’t really feel safe going to work because of upper management’s need to keep statistics and details hidden from their employees; last I heard there were 23 confirmed cases of the virus among employees [this was sent on March 21]. But who are these people, where do they work, what line, what equipment did they use, if we had that information we can better protect ourselves, and take the necessary steps to sanitize and thoroughly clean to stop the spread but they choose not to tell us.
Lastly, it’s been difficult to get testing, many of us don’t know if we should call out of work for a consistent cough or a runny nose without having other symptoms, and even if we attempted to call to get to me off, many of us have to call and hold for more than an hour. One coworker I know of called 75 times before he got in touch with anyone. It’s been difficult for us and we’re only trying to do our job.
-New York City subway train operator
“I dislike management's attitude towards these people”
Transit systems big and small are trying to figure out how to keep delivering service to essential workers who need it while facing the financial pressures from huge ridership drops. While these decisions are typically made by the highest levels of management working with political leadership, it is the bus drivers who have to face the riders and tell them they won’t have bus service anymore.
With ridership so low, the company has decided to go to a Saturday schedule for Monday-Friday. We had an emergency picking of new schedules. They had to add special runs to accommodate some (notice I said "some") runs that don't run on Saturday. But they left out a few routes. One of those left out runs was one of the ones I was doing. It won't affect me, as I have a new run, but some of my regulars do not have transportation and live way out. When I complained, I got shrugs and oh wells. I know: drastic times, drastic measures, but come on....these are people without a means to get to work and they still have to work. If we are going to run anyway, then they should pick these people up. I told them all to call and complain and have their friends and relatives call in also. I dislike management's attitude towards these people.
I have several health issues that put me in the likely-to-have-problems category if I catch this. I'm not freaking out like some of my coworkers, but I am concerned. I was told that some drivers have gotten excused from duty, some with pay and some without (just depends on what your health situation is), by our superintendent. If you get excused with pay, it's for two weeks. Better than nothing, but this isn't going to be over in two weeks, so then what?
The company originally said no masks, as they were—get this—more worried about the message masks sent to the public. More worried about image than employee safety, or at least peace of mind [the World Health Organization says masks are only needed if “you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection; many of the transit workers Motherboard spoke to were aware that masks aren’t proven effective at keeping you healthy, but wanted to wear them anyway]. They only recently decided we can wear them, but only after meeting with the union.
It looks as though most of my coworkers are of the opinion that we should be shut down. Yes, we do all care about our passengers, but staying healthy is more important than transporting people around town. It also lessens exposure, especially in the state with the No. 1 Coronavirus diagnoses. We can't shut down unless the governor says we can, but that's not looking promising.
-Bus driver in Albany, NY
“We have to deal with the complete disrespect from supervisors”
While the drivers and maintenance workers are the front-line men and women within the transportation industry, we have to deal with the complete disrespect from supervisors who are not exposed to the same conditions we are exposed to. Some of the supervisors have been caught making statements saying "it's not in our contracts that we have to provide protection to drivers.” It's statements like this that will keep drivers from coming into work. It's bad enough that drivers have to go out and put themselves in harm's way working with limited protection, but to have complete disrespect from supervisors is intolerable and cannot go on.
-Bus driver union representative in Wilmington, Delaware
“Yes we are disaster workers but does that mean that we have to catch the virus or even die?”
Ever since Covid-19 made its way to California our company has not been giving us the supplies we need to stay safe from catching the virus. They promised us masks, sanitizer, and gloves. The only thing they have provided us with was gloves.
They say they have cleaned the buses left and right, up and down but there have been times where we found roaches and little flies that look different than flies. Other companies have been letting patrons in through the rear door (only ADA patrons are allowed through the front door). The other companies have denied access to patrons to get close to the operator. We do have protective doors but air still flows around which means the virus can move around.
They haven't offered us hazard pay or anything, or not even a raise for these crises we are living today. We are afraid of catching it and going to our families with the virus because the virus can stay in our clothes or our lunch bags or anything that we have there.
The CEO said that all of the employees are cleared of the virus but no one has even been tested at the company so how do they know we are all cleared of this virus? Yes we are disaster workers but does that mean that we have to catch the virus or even die if some people have preconditions when the company does not care at all?
-Los Angeles bus driver
"I have a newfound sense of duty to the people of Los Angeles"
Personally, I’m still OK with coming into work because I have a newfound sense of duty to the people of Los Angeles. There are still people who need to get to and from work, clinics, hospitals, grocery stores etc. I show up to work for them.
As for management…well, I would like to start off by saying that, as someone who's been driving for some time now, I have always felt that I, and my fellow operators, are just pawns in their game of political chess. Going back before any of this started, every and any change in policy pertaining to operator safety/well-being has been reactionary and not proactive.
If I had to place a letter grade of Metro senior leaderships’ actions to protecting operators, it would have to be a very low C-, borderline D.
-LACMTA (Los Angeles) bus driver