Three unions that represent more than 275,000 American transit workers are now pushing for essential workers to receive 1.5 times their typical salary as “hazard pay”, as well as for the federal government to set standards for cleaning measures and transit worker safety equipment.
A Guardian investigation has revealed the following:
- At least 94 transit workers have succumbed to coronavirus, according to two national transit unions, New York City transit officials, and workers in New Orleans. This number includes many kinds of workers who keep transit systems running, from mechanics and maintenance workers to bus and subway operators. The number of all transit workers who have died of coronavirus across the US is likely higher.
- The New York City area has seen the majority of American transit worker deaths, with 68 fatalities among employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as of Friday afternoon. Nearly 2,500 MTA transit employees had tested positive, and more than 4,000 were in quarantine, a spokesman said.
- At least 24 more transit union members have died in other cities, according to two major transit unions. Bus drivers have died from coronavirus in Boston; Chicago; St Louis; Detroit; Seattle; Newark and Dover, New Jersey; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington DC, among others. In New Orleans, city bus drivers said they had lost three colleagues to coronavirus, only one of them a union member.
- Some of America’s largest cities, including Denver, Colorado; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; Seattle, Washington; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin only started giving out face masks to public bus drivers very recently.
- Only a few places, including Oakland, California; Columbus, Ohio; and New Jersey, currently require passengers to wear face masks in order to ride, a policy many bus drivers described as essential to their safety.
- New Orleans bus drivers have seen some of the most challenging overall conditions, national union officials said. Even as thousands of New Orleans residents are sick and hundreds dying, the city’s bus and streetcar drivers have been given no additional paid sick leave. A harsh company attendance policy has made some drivers fear they may be disciplined or fired for calling in sick.
- Suspending bus fares has led to high numbers of homeless people using public buses as shelter, making it difficult to observe social distancing guidelines, bus drivers across the country said.
Across the country, some transit agencies acted quickly to protect drivers. In Oakland and Berkeley, California, “We had an abundance of supplies when this first broke,” said Yvonne Williams, the president of the local transit union.
Though there have been some shortages, drivers started getting personal protective equipment on 13 March, she said, and the transit agency also allowed bus drivers 65 and older to stay home with pay.
Across the bay in San Francisco, bus drivers did not receive masks until 2 April, though a transit spokeswoman said drivers did have a built-in protective barrier on their vehicles.
New York City had begun issuing basic masks to its full transit workforce after March 27 and began giving transit workers the highest-quality N95 masks on April 4th, according to a transit spokesperson.
Conflict with passengers now carries additional anxieties. In Columbus, a man was charged with assault after he spat in a bus driver’s face and said he had coronavirus, according to news reports. The driver had reportedly told the man, who appeared to be intoxicated, to get off the bus.
A bus driver in Milwaukee, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian they had driven one man around for several hours before telling him that it was time to get off the bus, then calling security. The man pushed his way to the front of the bus, lifted his mask, and coughed directly on the driver before disembarking, the driver said.
The report adds that bus drivers often stay on the job into their 50s or 60s because their access to pension benefits tend to be less generous than other public workers. Because they spend a full day in traffic exposed to air pollution, drivers are also more likely to have a chronic disease.
Advanced age and chronic health issues put many drivers at risk for complications due to COVID-19. On top of those risks, bus drivers now have “eight hour, full shift exposure” to large numbers of other high-risk workers, like medical and grocery workers.